Maja Mataric: The Story Behind an Influential Advocate for Women in Tech

Don Tennant
Slide Show

The Nine Best Tech Jobs for 2015

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about my interview with Maja Mataric, vice dean for research at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering and a driving force behind  “The Next MacGyver,” a project aimed at attracting young girls to the STEM professions. As I indicated in that post, Mataric has long championed the advancement of women, especially in technology, so I wanted to focus separately on her background to give you a sense of what makes her such a strong and influential voice on the topic.

Mataric, who specializes in robotics for health care-related applications, was born in what is now Serbia, and emigrated to the United States when she was a teen. I asked her how emigrating from the Balkans has helped her  break the engineering glass ceiling, and she said it’s really more a matter of personality than of heritage:

I do think that people from the Balkans, in general, are thought to be plucky and feisty, and to some degree intransigent. I don’t like stereotypes, but to the extent that that’s true, that couldn’t have hurt. My research, which is about robotics for health, is exploring our understanding of what people need and what motivates people, and of course we find that one of the things that drives and motivates us is our personality. So I’m just someone who has inherited this personality that’s very pushy, and I actually go around and give talks called “Push.” Basically, it’s like [Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book] “Lean In,” but a lot pushier—it’s a Balkan bent on “Lean In.”


That said, Mataric acknowledged that there is something to the immigrant ethic:

First-generation immigrants have to push for a lot of things. There is discrimination, and a lot to deal with. It’s a grit thing—what matters is how you overcome adversity, not how much you succeed in any one particular endeavor. So being an immigrant from anywhere teaches one to survive anywhere, including being a woman in a male-dominated profession.

I asked Mataric in what ways coming from the former Yugoslavia has hindered her. She said she doesn’t think it’s hindered her at all, and that if anything, it’s given her an edge, in multiple ways:

One is that I’m so used to having to push—I haven’t achieved anything without serious, serious hard work on my part. I used to think it should be easier. Now I know that having to push hard for it doesn’t mean I don’t deserve it. Hard work is a requirement for any success—that ethic has helped a lot. Plus, people are really curious about people with interesting backgrounds—being different gives you an edge. A lot has happened in Serbia since I left, and for a while it had the attention of the American public; that gave people another reason to want to talk to me.

One of the most impressive things I learned about Mataric is that  she met with President Obama in the Oval Office in January 2011 to receive the Presidential Mentoring Award. I asked her what that experience was like, and her response was priceless:

That was tremendous. I was so excited, because I didn’t know until just weeks before that it was happening. At that point, my youngest was just a year old, and she was nursing, so I took her with me. She wasn’t in the Oval Office—she couldn’t go there. But I’m pretty sure I’m the only visitor who has nursed on the inside steps of a Congressional building. And when they put us through the security screening, I’m pretty sure I’m a rare example of a person who went through that with a portable breast pump. I am darn proud of that—that is exactly part of the message I want to send, which is, you go, and you be a woman, and you be a complete woman, be a mom, and be whatever the heck you want to be.

I asked Mataric if she had any female role models or heroines who were especially inspirational to her as she was growing up. She said her female role model is her mother:

She’s 81, and she still travels back to the old country twice a year and gives talks—she’s a writer and a poet. She’s extremely energetic and a force of nature, and I think part of my pluck just comes with being able to keep up with her. It’s draining—the woman is amazing. So I’m fortunate in that I had a women’s pioneer in my own household. More generally, there are so many role models. For me, it really is family. People have to find the support where they can. Some of the critical life decisions that led me to being in engineering have come from really supportive men, not women, because it’s the men who were already in these fields and who didn’t think of me as a girl first. They just thought of me as a person, and what I was capable of, and that’s really the support everyone needs. On one level, yes, a girl needs women role models. But the other thing everyone also needs is advocates. It’s very important—Sheryl Sandberg says the same thing in “Lean In”—you need to have advocates in the system, and most of the powerful people in the system are still men. So you’re going to need male advocates, and they should be people who really like you and care about you for you. They push you up because of you, not specifically because you’re a woman.

Mataric said in her case, an uncle was a key advocate:

My uncle said, “You should go into computers.” And I did, because he recommended it as a profession of the future. He was right. I also tried to do art, but then I thought, how good do you have to be at art to not be a starving artist? You could be the best, greatest artist in the world, and still be a starving artist. Already being an immigrant, I decided I needed a job. So my uncle was a pivotal force—somebody who pushed me at a key time, as I was entering college. I want everybody to know that I had a 4.0, straight A, grade point average in computer science and other subjects at the University of Kansas as an undergraduate, and not a single professor or counselor said to me, “Hey, have you thought about graduate school?” Fortunately, my then-boyfriend, now husband, who always knew he would go to grad school in chemistry, said, “You should go to grad school, too.” So I applied, and the rest is history. Since then, I’ve had more role models, but to get there, how much did it take? Thank goodness for all those key influences, female and male.

Finally, Mataric shared an anecdote that illustrates the high value she places on grit and determination:

In grad school, early on, when I told my Ph.D. advisor (who was always a great person and is now famous) that I was looking to succeed as a professor, he said, “I think you’ll succeed differently.” That really hurt, but it made me think, ”I’m going to show you!” So I didn’t succeed differently. I succeeded exactly as I hoped. That gets back to your question about what about me being an immigrant—I think it goes back to the grit thing. If someone puts you down, and your feeling is, they’re probably right, that will not get you anywhere. But if your feeling is, up yours, I’m going to show you how wrong you are (which is kind of how we are in the Balkans), then that helps. So don’t believe all the negative feedback. Just think, who the heck are you? If you’re not going to be positive, buzz off—that’s your problem. That says something about you, not me. But that takes a lot to nurture, because you don’t always feel strong. There are so many times when you don’t feel strong; I’m not standing here as some kind of pillar of 24/7 strength. Go to people who give you that strength. The others? Forget them. They’re the losers.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.



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