Marita Cheng: The 27-year-old engineer and CEO with a world-changing plan for women | Women's Agenda

Marita Cheng: The 27-year-old engineer and CEO with a world-changing plan for women

On May 17, women leaders will converge on Canberra for the annual She Leads Conference. Women’s Agenda is pleased to once again support this women’s leadership event as Media Partner. We will be sharing articles over the coming weeks from some of the amazing women who will be speaking at the Conference. To find out more, or to register to attend, visit the She Leads website.

When Marita Cheng started her undergraduate degree in computer science, she was dismayed to realise that the guys in her class had a head start on her. 

‘Everyone in my class had already done programming for about two years, and I went to uni to learn how to program. I was starting right from the beginning, whereas other people already knew all the basics, they’d done projects and made mistakes and learnt.’

The 27-year-old founder of Robogals and CEO/Founder of 2Mar Robotics realised that this disparity wasn’t an anomaly – girls are often leaps and bounds behind boys when it comes to learning basic programming and engineering skills, because of the differences in the activities they are encouraged to learn and engage with as children.

‘I think [this disparity] starts from when kids are young, when they’re 10, 11, 12 and the boy is given a computer to code on or robots to play with, and the girl is given dolls.’

Robogal combats this exact issue, by introducing girls to robotics and encouraging the development of skills that are directly applicable to careers in engineering, programming, and tech related fields.

‘We go into schools with robots and show girls how to program them, and girls then go home and say “Mum, I want a robot for Christmas,” or “Mum, where’s that robot that you bought for my brother, I want to play with it”. And they take these toys out at home and they start programming things.

Cheng’s vision is to ensure that when the next generation of women enter their first computer science class at university, they too have years of programming experience under their belt, so that the gender gap in the industry starts to close.

As a young woman who not only leads her own company, but also leads the Robogals movement, Cheng is committed to the idea that girls can’t be in careers where they don’t see other women excelling. On a company level, Cheng wants to see more organisations making gender equality part of their core business.

‘When women hear about workplaces that have female leaders, or workplaces that have programs in place for women to progress, then they’re attracted to those companies, they want to work there, they apply there.

‘And then, those companies in turn are seen as more innovative. They’re seen as more inclusive. They have a more balanced workplace and with better ideas, better reputations, and greater longevity.’

The representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields remains disheartening, with only 28% of STEM roles in Australia belonging to women (as compared to 55% of all tertiary educated roles nationally). The wage gap is also larger in STEM fields than the broader national figure, sitting at 30.1% in 2013 according to the ABS, in comparison to the general pay gap which was at 17.6%.

The reasons for the continued lack of gender equality in STEM mirror the issues faced in numerous other industries – a lack of flexible working arrangements available, unconscious gender biases that influence hiring decisions, and crucially, a lack of pathways into STEM for young women.

Cheng believes that one of the key strategies for addressing these issues is support networks and encourages organisations to develop mentoring programs for women.

 ‘Young women recognize that the statistics for their career paths aren’t in our favour. To get the best opportunities, there really does need to be that support from companies and that support from the community,’ Cheng says.

 ‘I started my own company, so it was a bit different for me. But for my friends, it’s really important for them to have the support networks out there of other friends in the industry, or even at work, in order to get the mentoring and support they need. Which is why workplaces that have a mentoring network for young women professionals, or a program for the women in their workplace do get higher numbers of female applicants.’

To hear more about Marita’s journey, and to learn from a line-up of inspiring women leaders, register to attend the She Leads Conference on 17 May at QT Canberra here.

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