Women in High Performance Computing

Interview with WHPC

ACM-W Europe volunteer Mariam Kiran talked with Women in HPC (WHPC) organizers Toni Collins and Lorna Rivera to find out about the amazing work centered around the WHPC and what more can be done to improve female and minority representations in computing. Here they talk about their experiences in the HPC community.


Toni Collis:

Toni Collis is the Director and co-founder of Women in HPC (WHPC), and an Applications Consultant in HPC Research and Industry at EPCC, the University of Edinburgh’s Supercomputing Centre (EPPC). Within EPCC Toni provides technical expertise on a range of research projects using HPC in academic software, from engineering to biology and teaches courses in the EPCC MSc in High Performance Computing. Toni is also part of the team that provides technical assistance to the UK national HPC service (ARCHER) community to help users port and optimise codes on ARCHER, and the provision of training for ARCHER users. As WHPC Director, Toni is responsible for leading the network, providing strategic guidance on its direction and the events that it runs and is also working on research into diversity in the HPC community. She has been on the organising committee for a variety of workshops and conferences including SC16, EuroMPI 2016, multiple WHPC events and is Inclusivity Chair for the SC17 conference.


Lorna Rivera:

Lorna Rivera serves as a Research Scientist in Program Evaluation at the Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC). Her work focuses on the intersection of scientific content, pedagogy, and equity with the goal of being both methodologically innovative and socially responsible. Rivera has conducted evaluations primarily funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure. This has led her to work with over 18 universities as well as multiple international high performance computing centers and organizations such as Compute Canada, EPCC, PRACE, RIKEN, and XSEDE. Rivera received both her Bachelor of Science in Health Education and her Master of Science in Health Education and Behavior from the University of Florida. Prior to joining Georgia Tech, Rivera worked with various institutions, including the March of Dimes, Shands HealthCare, and the University of Florida College of Medicine. Her research interests include the evaluation of innovative programs and their sustainability. Specialties include Program Evaluation, Mixed Methods Evaluation, Health Education and Promotion

The workshops are definitely raising awareness for Women in HPC. Compared to previous years, do you think times are changing from women trying to make careers in HPC.

Toni: the conversation has evolved quite a bit over the years. Especially at SC16: the organizers put diversity initiatives on the agenda for the first time last year.

Lorna: We are seeing longer-term support for diversity, which is more committed to solving the problem. What is important is that people who can make a difference are listening and based on our data from the HPC world it is leading to a cultural change.  Specifically rethinking the definition of excellence, making mentors available and nontraditional hires as examples

Have things changed at work now?

Toni: Not quite yet, the proportion has not changed yet. These things take time to percolate the system. It is relatively slow, but the important effort is coming about as a result of WPHC. However, we do see that women are more visible now, especially the ones already there. And organizations are making sure that they are contributing and this all snowballs into the younger generation seeing more role models and hopefully lead to improved retention of women in the HPC workforce.

Lorna: We can be encouraged, also, at the undergraduate level. Colleges such as Harvey Mudd and Carnegie Mellon now have 40% female enrollment in computer science. The pipeline at this point is getting better. We can be hopeful that this is growing. Woman are also more vocal, which is good, as there is freedom to discuss. A number of institutions are now interested in diversity issues and want to start WHPC chapters in their place of work. This shows more people are opening up.

We see there are two problems at the moment – increasing entry of girls in computing and second, holding on to the current workforce, which seems to be leaking (the leaky pipeline). In both issues, what do you think are the main reasons for these issues? How can we repair these problems?

Lorna: It is very complex. One of the interesting things to be aware of is that the perception when women leave their jobs is that they leave the workforce. This is not true. They actually continue their technical skills in another field such as healthcare, schools etc. There is also a perception that they leave due to family pressure when only a small percentage leave altogether. However, women are obviously leaving at a dramatically higher level than men. Common concerns raised include that women often cite that they have fewer opportunities or that they are put into roles such as project management. It is reported that there are fewer opportunities to progress and fewer innovative projects or that they are given a technical task. This constant behaviour will naturally frustrate a lot of people. Another thing could be the culture is not welcoming to women and minorities, and then they leave. The environment itself can play a big role. Such as social circles of men going to play basketball, with women not invited, and many more like this. Women will then leave as they don’t feel part of the group. It is a very complex problem.

Toni: I agree with Lorna. This focus on retention also impacts those coming in. A US study says 69% of teenage girls don’t even think of jobs in IT as a career path because they don’t know what it involves. But if they are told what an IT job entails 53% would consider it. The study found that teenagers (girls and boys) want to be paid well and girls, in particular, want a job that positively impacts society. Therefore reaching out to teenage girls to explain that it can be very well paid and the social impact of everything we do could have a huge impact on the entry point in the pipeline. There is a link in talking to girls, impacting society and retaining the workforce. We need to link all of this up.

Your workshops and BoF at SC in 2015 and 2016 were very successful, with myself attending one of them and discussing interesting case studies. In general, do you think we are still discussing the same issues every year? When do you think things will change and what is the ‘how’ needed for instigating change

Lorna: in some ways, the same issues are discussed, but they are important as people, who can make an impact, are listening. We are gaining traction and also getting data from HPC World itself.

Toni: We need to have data that is relevant to our community. More general research is relevant, but we also need to understand the unique aspects of the HPC community. I’m not sure of the timescale, but the workshops will gradually evolve. We are making progress. Across the entire social spectrum, society is embracing equality in a way never done before. HPC was historically relying on everyone else, and this is what WHPC has really changed by making the HPC community take a specific interest in equality and inclusivity in this community. The social change brought about changing the global attitude towards equality and diversify will help bring about change even faster. As the conversation changes, globally, we bring that positive message to our workshops and events.

Ok, a bit of detour question here. How the game is actually played, is about opportunities. Certain persons are encouraged to apply for fellowships, ideas, partnerships. It is often reported that this, damages equality opportunities as it is usually heads of department that encourage applications of this nature, which means that they are often subject to how they ‘fit in’, because they look a certain way or are part of the ‘brotherhood’. Then two or three years down the line, when it comes to promotions, you will naturally choose the person who has all the fellowships with his name. Eventually, the faculty grows into one kind. Is this a real and systematic problem?

Lorna: we see this in all fields, in education as well, such as most CEOs being white men. This goes back to culture change. Also, discussing how these opportunities are important for change and leadership. Some faculties are changing how they advertise jobs so that they appeal to the non-traditional candidate. It is also important to make sure true sponsors are available from minority groups. I have a great female boss who is an advocate for my work. I recognize people don’t have opportunities but encourage people to go find and make groups to support each other.

Toni: Having an advocate or sponsor is fundamental in bringing about change. Having a mentor is important, but should be someone who is not involved in your day-to-day activities. To address the issue of certain people getting more opportunities often comes down to opening management’s eyes: explaining what unconscious bias is, and how to address it. Women should also be encouraged to try new things: I think we are sometimes so pushed back by the system we need to encourage each other a little. Everyone (women and men) sometimes need a little encouragement! We also need to stop criticizing opportunities that are explicitly designed for women such as grants and fellowships for women in the workforce, just because they might label us in some way. These are actually very competitive and highly prestigious. As women in a male-dominated community, we have so many barriers in our way, so we should not feel bad about taking one of the few opportunities that are open to us.

Will you be organizing any future workshops either locally or at SC17? How can more women get involved in these initiatives?

 Toni: We have grand plans for 2017! We will be applying for workshops at future conferences such as SC and ISC. We are also expanding members to have more local events so that more women can take part and leaders can take part. We also aim to bring more male advocates to our events in 2017. WHPC is not only for women, but how to bring about positive change: this requires men to be involved too. We have free membership and encourage all to join. We are also looking for volunteers, to contribute to social media campaigns, contribute to our research and we are delighted to receive offers of help!

Lorna: There are some beginnings of partnerships with academia and industry. But we will have more information on this in the future. We want to do so much more; we are taking this very seriously.

We also want to work with organizations that overlap with our efforts. WHPC deals with HPC, physicists, biologists and medics (not only computing). So we want to share our best practices to work together where we can to bring about change for the greater good. People are supporting each other and this is truly a fellowship of people changing the world, which is fantastic.

7) lastly, imagine you wake up one day and the universe says, ” I give you the day you want, you cannot ask for more money, but I can improve your work and family (general life) day for today”. What you would like your day to look like (in both the work environment and family life)?

Toni: my vision for a perfect day would be a day where I knew every single girl and boy has an equal chance of being a CEO or a nurse. Every child, irrespective of their colour, background or gender, and crucially their parents knew they could be anything. There would be no concern, only encouragement if your daughter wanted to be an astronaut or a grumpy professor or a teacher.

Lorna: Expanding this to a culture that recognizes that so that parents and society also accept the change. There will always be a group of people who don’t believe it. Not just equality but I hope for an equitable society, where folks are given equal opportunity for their ability. The tragedy is that we have brilliant people, who are being overlooked, which is a waste. And we could improve society by having all of these brilliant people solving problems, rather than just 10-15% of them.

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