Education Robotics
To Build a Better Robot, Build a Better Team
azar robotics 8879
Kate Azar is a student in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She continues to participate in FIRST at the collegiate level as Director of Programs of GOFIRST, a FIRST Support Organization.

In the month of April, robotics teams participate in competitions such as FIRST in St. Louis and Vex in Anaheim. I met Kate Azar last summer and heard her talk enthusiastically about FIRST robotics. While her experience was positive, she realized that young women struggle to gain respect as competitors and team members. I asked her to share her insights below.


Last year, I graduated high school after three years on the Robettes, an all-girls FIRST Robotics Competition team from St. Paul, Minnesota. Amidst metal shavings and solder droplets, I learned quickly that boys in engineering would assume my ignorance and downplay my success. At the same time, I discovered that these same males desperately wanted more female makers to participate.

What a huge disconnect! The disrespect, the misogyny, the labels — the various forms of bias were expressed within the very group trying to fight them.

Before my first competition, my teammates told me that boys were out to get me: I would receive no respect as a female in engineering, and I had to “go into competition prepared.” It was ominous, really. While I mostly shook it off, a part of me listened, and, knowing no better, I showed up at my first competition prepared for battle.

The battle never came. For me. I saw males disparaging my teammates, and it generally came down to the fact that the girls, brilliant as they were, didn’t assert themselves as competent — yet they always cried sexism. There I was, ready to verbally spar with anyone who got in my way, and my defenses were totally unnecessary.

After consulting multiple young women in FIRST Robotics, I found that my experience was far from normal. Two members of Fish in the Boat, FIRST Tech Challenge World Champions of 2013, are quoted below.

“Being the only female in a STEM class or program sucks. It’s discouraging, it’s disheartening, [and] it made me feel like I was flat out not good enough to want to go into STEM … [H]ow many other girls don’t feel good enough because the guys in the class are discriminatory, make uncomfortable comments, are sexist, and in one case flat out tell you they don’t think you should be in the class?”      —Erin Mitchell

“While my good memories outweigh the sexist ones, it’s horrible at competitions when you’re trying to discuss strategy with a guy on a team, and he totally disregards anything you have to say — because you’re a girl.”      —Crystal Huynh

With 40% of females leaving engineering just after entering the field, it’s clear that those experiences add up. So why, then, was mine different? The issue runs deeper than simple finger pointing. A slap on the wrist “because it’s the boys’ fault” won’t fix anything.

When there are 50 people on a robotics team, 48 male and two female, if one male has a terrible attitude and no technical ability, 47 counterexamples exist to validate his gender’s skill. If one female suffers the same, she spoils 50% of the data pool. And it happens. As a mentor once told me, “it’s human nature to stereotype.”  

Is there a solution? Surely, females must be confident in their ability to perform, and they must display that confidence — or they will never receive respect. As stated by Madeleine Logeais, 2014 FIRST Dean’s List Winner, “Expectation translates to invitation.” When a girl enters a situation guarded, others will perceive it as a lack of confidence in her own ability.  (Similarly, boys can be overconfident in their ability, yet it can be driven also by the same underlying insecurity.)

After that first competition, my experience in robotics shifted dramatically. Because I joined the team as a high school sophomore, rather than as a freshman, I brought a new perspective to my team, and I re-evaluated a situation others had not questioned. What I found surprised me. Now, I enter competition openly, asserting my intelligence in a friendly way, and have had few poor experiences dealing with prejudice.

My advice to girls: Be clever, friendly, and assertive in equal measure. Be makers.

My advice to boys is the same. However, know that your words and actions can diminish, if not undermine, female participation, which will ultimately make you, your team, and the fields of engineering and robotics less successful.


Let’s improve how we work together, getting to know people as individuals and learning not just how to build robots but how to build more capable teams based on mutual respect.

3 thoughts on “To Build a Better Robot, Build a Better Team

  1. I mentor a middle school robotics team and find your article interesting.
    I sincerely hope that none of the girls on my team have experienced any sexism and have never seen any indication that they have.
    We work hard to treat all of the students fairly and to elevate the girls and boys in equal numbers to leadership positions.
    In my personal experience, the girls are at least as capable as the boys and tend to be more enthusiastic and make excellent leaders.

    1. Hi, thanks for the note! We’d like to include a portion of it in our Reader Input section in the upcoming issue of Make: magazine. I have a couple questions if you could email me at ccouden [at] makermedia [dot] com. Thanks!

  2. What an awesome article! It rings true with my experience too. I recently completed a diploma in Mechanical Technology, where the female population was about 10%. One of the girls was exemplary: she won an award each year, she was hard working, she understood everything, but she had NO confidence! She would downplay herself always. It was frustrating to watch, because many of us guys in the class respected her ability, and some guys would often join her in her cajoling. For example, a guy might say “Yeah, Lisa, you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.” Meanwhile, he was shaking his head, since he was damned sure that she understood the material far better than he did.

    I think the exchanges had a deleterious effect on some of the other girls in the program, though, and one poor young girl quit the program with only 6 months to go! Now, other more blatant sexism may have been to blame for this, and when I say blatant, I mean it was blatant to me, and therefore probably to the girls, but it was not remotely clear to those guys exhibiting it.

    Interestingly, these comments, even though from a small group of guys, were not necessarily argued by anyone. So it worked a little like your numbers example, except that when 2% of the male population says something rude, and no one calls him on it, that makes 100% of the population seem rude.

    However, on the occasions when a girl would stick up for herself, even the boys on the sidelines would chime in and celebrate her.

    They wouldn’t stick up for her if she wouldn’t stick up for herself, first, which is I think the crux of your advice for girls.

    I like your recommendations for both girls and guys. Being confident but not cocky, being willing to discuss/debate an idea without preconceived bias, being willing to be right or wrong… if everyone acted this way, we would be much further down the road.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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Kate Azar

Kate Azar is a student in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She continues to participate in FIRST at the collegiate level as Director of Programs of GOFIRST, a FIRST Support Organization.

View more articles by Kate Azar