Women in Engineering, and a Global Call for the Next MacGyver

Opinion

Apparently, I’m pushy. I can’t help it. It’s my genes, and also all I’ve been through.

When you’re a woman in engineering, there are a host of voices (some residing in your head, some not), telling you that you’re not good enough, not smart enough—that when you’re alone amid a sea of male faces at conferences, there must be a reason for that.

I met my future husband in our first week of college. By our senior year, he was the only person who suggested I should aim high and apply for graduate school in engineering. I had a 4.0 GPA in computer science, yet no professor and no college counselor had ever suggested it.

In my first year in graduate school at MIT, I felt the full-fledged impostor syndrome—the belief I was there by mistake and that I would be found out any day. It turns out that nearly everybody at MIT has this feeling (though most don’t fess up to it), but women in particular do because we are not socialized to own our own successes. I happened to attend a workshop where I learned a great bit of advice: “Fake it ‘til you make it.” To men it comes naturally; women have to be reminded to do it.

I was the only woman professor in the first computer science department where I was hired. Then I was the second woman professor in the second computer science department where I was hired, and soon after I was the only one, when the first woman left. Things are much better now, I’m happy to say.

So, push. It’s kind of like Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in,” but a lot pushier.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, that I have achieved has come without quite a lot of pushing and effort on my part. When I do push, it turns out I can achieve almost anything. That’s not because I’m me, it’s because that’s what it takes, and we all can do that. I’m at USC, where “Fight on” is officially part of our college spirit. So that’s what I do.

That may sound trite, but consider this: Studies show that when men are told, “No,” what they hear and perceive is, “Not now.” Does that sound familiar from dating, maybe? It’s actually a great way to be. Women should be like that, too. “No” doesn’t always mean no; sometimes, it means not now, but try again in five minutes.

Push for things you believe in. Push for getting more women into computing. And as the curtain rises for National Robotics Week, I’m pushing to get more women into engineering and robotics.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering, where I am vice dean of research, is no stranger to this particular push.

Thirty-seven percent of USC Viterbi’s entering freshmen are women; nearly double the national average. In addition, the female student percentage in computer science, a notoriously under-represented field for women, is close to 28 percent, also nearly double the national average.

But it’s not nearly enough. We’re currently in the midst of an ambitious push to change a culture on the national level—to explode some stereotypes about what engineers are, what they look like and what they do.

Conveniently, our school is close to Hollywood, the epicenter of popular culture. Rather than bemoan the fact that women engineers are virtually invisible on television and in the movies, we’ve decided to enlist Hollywood to change that.

Thirty years ago, MacGyver was the most iconic engineer hero on TV. In 2015, in the spirit of that show, we’re looking for new, female, engineering heroes. No mullets required.

The “Next MacGyver” global crowdsourcing competition, led by the USC Viterbi School and the National Academy of Engineering, has partnered with some of the most successful television producers in Hollywood to make it happen. We are looking for the first great show with an iconic female engineer as the main character, and five winners will each be awarded $5,000 and paired with a TV producer to develop her or his script. You can find more information here.

I have two daughters, ages 5 and 16, with a son in the middle. One of the things we do together is watch one of their favorite shows and then talk about it. My oldest daughter loves to watch “House.” She tells me she enjoys the way the strong females on the diagnostic team always challenge the lead character’s actions and ethics. We see a lot of strong female characters in medical, forensics, and law shows, but we’ve never really seen them as engineers.

Most kids don’t know about the fascinating opportunities for careers in engineering because they are missing in the media. Forensics has soared in popularity as a direct result of media coverage. Let’s do that for engineering! As pushes go, I can think of few better.

Maja Matarić, a pioneer in robotics, is a professor and Chan Soon-Shiong Chair of Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Pediatrics; founding director of the USC Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems; and vice dean for research at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. She is urging more women to pursue careers in engineering. Follow @

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  • TV writer

    The situation for women in TV writing is a lot like you describe–it’s a total boys club. Women are extremely underrepresented in the writers room and often subjected to sexism if they manage to secure a seat there. It’s also the reason many female characters on TV are not written well. The shows with the most well-developed female characters tend to be those with women on staff. Sadly, there are MANY shows that don’t have even one female writer on staff. In the 2011-2012 season, 68% of television shows didn’t employ a single female writer!

    I hope the judges for this contest choose a number of ideas from female writers. It would be great if this opportunity helped both women in engineering, and women in TV writing.