Maja Mataric is a robotics pioneer who has been named as one of the 25 most influential women engineers by Business Insider. As prestigious as that accomplishment is, I can assure you that in her capacity as Vice Dean for Research at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, she’s even more gratified by her work in an outreach program that helped Viterbi attract a freshman class that was 37 percent female—nearly double the national average.
Mataric has also been instrumental in driving “The Next MacGyver,” a global crowdsourcing competition aimed at attracting young girls to the STEM professions by creating a TV show with a strong female engineer for them to identify with. I recently had the opportunity to interview Mataric, and I opened the conversation by asking her about her role in the TV project. She stressed that she didn’t want to take credit for it personally, because a lot of people within the Viterbi School have been working on it as part of a larger K-12 outreach effort:
The specific idea for “The Next MacGyver” as a theme, as a vehicle to make that possible, was something that was done jointly with our K-12 outreach program. In order for our K-12 activities to have an effect, they have to get out there. We have people in our marketing and communications group who are focused on K-12 outreach—for example, we have someone who’s a former K-12 teacher. She’s really good at not just marketing provided content, but actually working with us to create content and programs. So when I say this is a team effort, I really mean that. It’s a Viterbi School idea. … It’s been wonderful, because I’ve had the opportunity to reach out to my colleagues across the country, everybody from faculty like me, to vice deans, deans of engineering, and leads of educational organizations, and really have something specific to say to them—not the general thing of, “Here is this challenge we have, what are we going to do about it?” Instead, I could say, “Here is this really exciting, specific thing that you can rally around, and get people at your university across disciplines, including your people in theater, fine arts, drama, social science, you name it.” Anybody could submit a script for this opportunity. It was really a pleasure to have something specific that we’re excited about, and that I could share. So that’s what I’ve been doing—a lot of reaching out. And of course, we’ve had a tremendous outcome—nearly 1,800 submissions! Now, the next stage is the judging. The big culling is done by a separate team of judges. Then, I’m really looking forward to working with other experts on coaching the winning teams. We are going to have a very major, heavily publicized event in July to do the final judging, and winner announcements and teamings with the entertainment industry and STEM coaches. We want this to produce more than just this one show. We want Hollywood to take note and say, “Hey, here is a thing worth doing.”
Mataric went on to explain that although she feels she’s had an impact as someone with an important message for women, what’s really needed is a relatable role model for young girls:
I was really fortunate to receive the 2013 Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision Award in Innovation, and was part of a wonderful event in the Bay Area, where they brought an impressive group of women in from the local universities and businesses. The recipients of the 2013 awards gave shorts talks to that great audience. For once, I really had to scrap everything and make the talk from scratch and from the heart, because it wasn’t my normal research audience, which I also love, but it’s very different. That was my first “Push” talk. There is a video of it on YouTube (of course), and since then I’ve gotten so much response—parents telling me they’ve shown it to their daughters, Intel having me come out once or even twice per year to talk to their corporate women. It’s just been wonderful—I really didn’t expect this to happen, but I’m so happy it’s making an impact. But still, it’s not reaching young girls. I’m not their relatable role model, and if they’re given that talk to watch, they can’t relate. It’s not stuff that they really care about before college. That’s why “The Next MacGyver” project is important, because we have to get K-12 girls content that they actually care about.
Mataric went on to highlight another Viterbi School activity: a summer coding camp for low-income elementary and middle school girls from the schools around USC:
We have a donor for this program, and she was saying, “Are you going to be there all the time?” I said, “That is not what matters. I’m not the important one.” What’s important are USC Computer Science undergraduate women students who are going to be around there, too, coding alongside with the girls. They’re going to be the mentors. These are the most relatable role models—not me. I want to be a role model for people who find me relatable, and that, at best, is graduate students—that’s as young as I can get to. For anyone younger than that, we need much more of a popular media role model—that’s “The Next MacGyver.”
It struck me that the ramifications of these programs are huge, given what Mataric cited as statistics that show that companies that have women in the top leadership positions have a higher chance of succeeding:
Why is that? I think the answer has to do with diversity more generally as much as with women specifically. Being different is a challenge, and people who have had to deal with challenges tend to be better leaders. Women face many more different challenges than men, and have an invaluable set of skills and expertise to contribute that every company needs and that is complementary to what men can contribute. Starting companies, making companies succeed—those are big challenges, and you have to deal with a lot of people saying “no.” You have to just push right through it and make it work. … When organizations don’t have women in leadership on an equal footing, they have a partial view of the world. The same thing holds for diversity in general—if you don’t have diversity on your team, you’re basically ignoring a part of the world view. If you’re a company, and you’re not employing women, you’re ignoring half of your market. Even if you’re making men’s underpants—women are buying those underpants. The same applies to ethnic diversity—it’s such a no-brainer.
One of Mataric’s key messages to women of all ages, meanwhile, is this: Never believe anybody who tells you that you have to make a choice between your life and your career:
You tell them to go crawl under whatever medieval rock they’ve come from. Women can choose to do both. It is a choice, but it is not a forced choice—you can choose to do both, or you can choose to do one or the other. One of the worst things that’s happening in this country is that women who have made one choice are fighting against the women who have made the other choice. We are undermining ourselves. Women who have chosen to be full-time moms are looking down at working moms, and vice versa. And it’s sad, because working moms need a lot of support, and so do stay-at-home moms. And in this country, we don’t value either enough. So we need to come together rather than fight among ourselves. That’s my big message to women across the board: Stop the mommy wars!
During our interview, Mataric also shared a fascinating account of her own background, and of what inspired her to pursue her STEM goals. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.
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.