The Listening Post tells the stories of women in the national security space by sharing experiences, interviews, and profiles of women who are ushering in the new era of national security.
Amy Chaput is a former Acting Chief Technology Officer for the Directorate of Science & Technology at CIA, where she spearheaded the enterprise-wide strategy for science and technology to include research, investment, and partnerships with industry and academia. Chaput is currently Vice President for Civil Programs at Stellar Solutions.
THE LISTENING POST — As a little girl growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I always knew I wanted to be an engineer. My grandfather owned an electrical construction business in downtown Chicago with my father and uncle, and I worked there every summer. Although my first job was simply answering the phone, my father and grandfather engaged me in all aspects of the business from the bid and proposal process to electrical design to payroll and bookkeeping. My favorite task was building the company’s first personal computers, back when you had to integrate the processor, motherboard, and memory by hand. There was nothing better than seeing the computer power up and present that all-inviting command prompt “C:\>” that opened up an endless world of possibilities.
Like many women who end up in STEM career fields, I was fortunate that my family encouraged my interest in technology. On one particularly memorable Christmas, Santa brought me a Texas Instruments TI-99 home computer (complete with a speech synthesizer and a Basic programming language interpreter). I taught myself how to program in Basic, print the word “hello”, and say my name in the funny way those first computers sounded.
I also loved the Barbie Doll and Cabbage Patch Kid that Santa gave me that year. I loved being a little girl, getting dressed up, curling my hair, and painting my nails. But I also loved math and science and computers and taking things apart to try to figure out how they worked. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that there may be challenges in bring both a girl and an engineer.
As I got older, I chose to pursue a degree in electrical engineering where I was one of only three girls in the class. We were inseparable. When not in class, you could find us at any time of the day or night in the student lounge finishing homework or studying for a test. We could be ourselves together and supported each other throughout those challenging and demanding four years. During our junior year, our class was given the task of working together in teams on a group project to develop an alternative energy plan for a small city. Naturally, the three of us decided to team together on the project. After noticing this, the professor asked us to stay after class and said he thought we should divide up and work on separate teams so that we wouldn’t be at a disadvantage. We proceeded to ask if he considered breaking up any of the boys’ teams. While it was obvious that we were in the minority, it was quite shocking to be confronted with the idea that not everyone thought girls were cut out to be engineers.
As a senior, I started preparing for college fairs and job interviews, and my mom took me to see a fashion consultant to learn how to properly dress as a professional. She taught me how to find clothes that fit, which colors worked best with my hair color and skin tone, and how to wear makeup so that it looks like you’re not actually wearing any. These were certainly important tips for a college girl of the 90s when my wardrobe consisted of bleached jeans, oversized t-shirts, and Doc Martens. I remember the consultant asking me about my degree, and I proudly told her I was an engineer. Her recommendation was, therefore, to wear black and navy-blue pant suits. When I look disappointed and asked about incorporating other colors, she said I should really stick with dark, masculine colors. Brighter colors would be acceptable if I was in marketing or sales but not as an engineer. I would likely be the only woman in the room, and I should try to blend in with the men. I didn’t know if I wanted to blend in. I wanted to be myself, both feminine and technical, a woman and an engineer. This tension would continue to be a challenge for me throughout my career.
After college, I was offered a job working in the aerospace industry and was fortunate to once again be surrounded by a handful of women who encouraged me to be myself, develop new skills, and tackle the most challenging technical problems. I firmly believe that I stayed in engineering because of these women. They became my mentors, my sponsors, and my friends. When I was ready for a career change, it was one of these women who recruited me into the CIA. I was nervous about the change and the increased level of responsibility and authority, so she encouraged and helped me through the process. Throughout my career, she urged me to apply for leadership positions that I might never have considered. The experiences offered me opportunities to grow and mature as a leader in so many ways. I have witnessed first-hand the power of diversity and the value of acknowledging and appreciating our differences.
I am forever grateful to all of the women who encouraged me to stay in the field of engineering. Their sponsorship along with the steadfast support of my family were essential in developing a confidence and credibility that enabled my advancement from promotion to the Senior Intelligence Service to Chief of Facility to Deputy Chief Technology Officer and now the opportunity to transition back to industry in the role of Vice President.
The cultural and societal challenges that I faced during my academic and professional career remain today. Engineering continues to have a problem both recruiting and retaining women. Women make up only 20% of engineering graduates and even less, only ~11% of the engineering workforce. It’s hard to believe that even today, so many women leave because they feel pressured to conform to cultural norms resulting in a struggle of feeling inauthentic and alone. So, I am working diligently to pay it forward, to support those who challenge the norms, remain true to themselves, and showcase the value of diversity. We need to change our mindset, evolve our culture, and acknowledge the benefit of allowing women to bring their authentic selves to work. For we are proud to be both women and engineers.
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