While making up a majority of college students who earn degrees, women only earn 22% of engineering degrees, 21% of physics degrees and 20% of computer science degrees. By introducing STEM education to Triangle girls early, ChickTech Raleigh-Durham hopes to put a dent in that gender gap.
For many female volunteers in the group, including Co-Directors Kelly Curtin and Rima Chakravarty, ChickTech’s mission is personal.
From the classroom to the boardroom, Curtin, who recently retired as Fidelity Investments’ Director of Data Modeling and Analysis, had gotten used to being the only woman in the room.
“Sometimes you just have to use the charm initiative, unfortunately—you flatter, and you get the job done,” Curtin said. “It was an interesting journey. I began my career as one of the few women in the room and I ended my career as one of the few women in the room.”
Curtin began her career in 1988. But Chakravarty, who transitioned to tech in the last decade after working in finance, had many of the same isolating experiences.
“Because I have worked in different verticals, I have seen that this is more of a problem in the tech industry,” Chakravarty said. “It isn’t that bad in finance or in a bank, it wasn’t that bad in government. But I think it is very hard for a woman in the tech industry.”
Many of ChickTech’s female volunteers share similar experiences. They’re working hard to address gender inequalities in tech so that future generations can walk a better path with fewer obstacles.
The national ChickTech organization was founded in 2012 in Portland. It has since expanded to 25 U.S. cities and 15 countries. There are six primary regional associations including the Raleigh-Durham chapter, which was formed in 2016 by volunteers associated with Red Hat.
The Triangle branch offers STEM enrichment programs to students and adults alike. Curtin said she was inspired to come on at ChickTech after looking for volunteer outreach opportunities in the wake of the 2016 election.
“I nearly lost my mind,” Curtin said. “And so once I stopped crying—and it took a couple of weeks—I decided that I needed to take all of this negative energy and make it positive energy.”
Curtin connected with a friend at Red Hat, who told her that ChickTech RDU was looking for a volunteer coordinator. Curtin was in.
From a decades-long career in data and coding, Curtin found herself learning newsletter-writing software and basic HTML. The work wasn’t exactly what she was used to. But the chance to give other women the opportunities she had in her successful tech career made it worth Curtin’s while.
“I had a great career in tech,” Curtin said. “I’m 58 years old, and I retired at the age of 58. What’s allowed me to do that is my career in tech. It’s a great path, and I want others to be aware of this path.”
By introducing female and nonbinary students to STEM early, ChickTech hopes to show them the value and potential fun of a future in STEM to students in their formative years, including high school and middle school, with in-person and virtual enrichment programs. ChickTech hopes to break students’ narrow conceptions of a future in tech, and show them that not having a so-called “math brain” doesn’t limit their opportunities in this promising professional space.
“Maybe you’re going to do coding, maybe you can do product design—there are a lot of students who aren’t aware,” Curtin said. “They only know what their parents do, and so they don’t always get the exposure in high school and middle school about [other] lives and careers out there. I wanted to be part of that, to help empower underrepresented communities in STEM.”
Their programs are open to all female and non-binary students. ChickTech is especially focused on uplifting students from underrepresented minority backgrounds, who make up an even smaller population of workers in the STEM space.
ChickTech works with local companies, universities and individual volunteers of all genders and backgrounds to provide immersive education to Triangle students. Partnering with Meredith College, ChickTech has held weekend workshops ranging topically from forensics (think CSI) to animation to biology, with more opportunities on the horizon.
Currently, ChickTech has ongoing monthly workshops for students, but ChickTech is actively seeking to expand its presence. From time and expertise, to space to teach, to something as simple as bagged lunches, organizations big and small can provide ChickTech with a variety of resources to achieve its mission. Chakravarty and Curtin are always open to discussing new partnerships.
“It literally is, who’s gonna give us space?” Curtin said. “Who’s going to pay for lunch? It comes down to volunteers, and funding what can we do, who is willing to teach what.”
The business case for gender diversity
Promoting women in tech and STEM spaces is about more than altruism. Research shows that diversity in all backgrounds, including but not limited to gender and race, leads to better products and financial results. That’s why ChickTech also provides workshops meant to reach women of diverse backgrounds who are interested in starting or advancing in a tech career.
Chakravarty, herself an experienced product manager, said companies need to take diversity as a serious consideration. Ensuring a more diverse workforce—and products better suited to fit audiences that reflect the diversity of that workforce—is a smart strategic decision.
“If you are investing in women, there are certain skill sets that you bring in,” Chakravarty said. “I’m not saying the skill set that men have is bad, I’m saying that you are diversifying the skill set. If you bring them all together, then you actually bring a more holistic environment, and that is profitable for you.”
From its humble beginnings just six years ago, ChickTech RDU has expanded its work, especially as a result of the Covid pandemic. Over 100 students currently participate in the organization’s high school program, with 60 volunteers supporting ChickTech’s in-person STEM weekend last year. Even if not every student goes on to work in STEM, the opportunity to provide just one girl the support and encouragement they lacked in their own careers is meaningful to ChickTech RDU’s leading ladies.
“It is very rewarding when you see how you have made an impact, even if it is just for one girl,” Chakravarty said. “You don’t have to do that for thousands. But if you, in your locality, can at least influence one person, that’s a big win.”