Women Still Struggle to Find Their Place in HPC

By Nicole Hemsoth

November 16, 2011

by Samantha Foley, Computer Science and Mathematics Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Rebecca Hartman-Baker, Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Judith C. Hill, Computer Science and Mathematics Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Hai Ah Nam, Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Although women comprise the majority of the United States labor force, 60 percent of college graduates in developed countries, most of the of internet users, and start the majority of new companies created each year in the US, they have made surprisingly few inroads into high performance computing. Women earn roughly 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 20 percent of advanced degrees in computer science and computer engineering. In recent years, the once-celebrated diversity of Silicon Valley has declined.

Likewise, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are shockingly underrepresented in computing. In business meetings and at professional conferences and workshops, we often look around the room and find ourselves to be the sole representative of the female half of the population. Our African-American and Latina colleagues report a similar experience. It can be lonely if you are not part of the majority.

Because of this disparity, we were inspired to create a community for women in HPC. Our efforts began with last year’s BoF on Women in HPC at SC10 in New Orleans — a session featuring a panel with three successful women representing academia, industry, and national laboratories. During this BoF, which gathered more than 50 attendees (despite competing against the TOP500 announcement and the technical poster session), we gained several insights into the experiences of women in HPC.

First, women in HPC long for a community. We had a hard time getting everybody to leave the BoF even though the convention center was closing! Feedback from attendees included several statements of being happy to see so many other women at such a male-dominated conference. One woman said that she chose to attend this BoF to “not feel so alone.” Another mentioned that it is “always cool to see another woman in the ‘sea-o-men.”

Others suggested we extend the event, including one who jokingly asked for a full-day session for women in HPC, and another who wanted to go out to dinner as a group. From this feedback, we decided to organize a BoF dedicated to creating a community for women in HPC.

Second, as a more general issue, there are many recruiters, hiring managers, and CEOs interested in improving diversity — they just don’t know how. We had several good questions from the audience on that topic and in our feedback attendees asked for more information.

In particular, there were several men who attended the session, one of whom was “motivated by concerns about the prospects for [his] daughters in HPC,” another who, as a recruiter, desires to “increase the number of women on [his company’s] scientific/engineering team,” and an academic who wants to “help make [his] group better at retaining [diverse] people.”

Female attendees also asked for “quick tips on how to hire/find/recruit women.” Many challenges with respect to recruiting and retaining women also apply to other underrepresented minorities, thus we expanded our focus to address diversity more generally.

These are two very different issues that can’t be addressed in a single session. Thus we are holding two BoF sessions this year at SC11:

  • Thursday 12:15-1:15 – Developing, Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce in HPC (TCC LL2)
  • Thursday 5:30-7:00 – Women in HPC: Community Building (WSCC 613/614)

In our Thursday noontime BoF entitled “Developing, Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce in HPC,” we hope to empower employers and supervisors with the tools to create a work or educational environment where people of all types can flourish. We will begin with a panel discussion with five panelists who are successful in fostering a diverse workplace.

The panelists are Ricky A. Kendall, Group Leader for the Scientific Computing Group in the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Beth Plale, Professor of Computer Science at Indiana University (IU); Curt Sellers, the senior manager of staffing for NetApp’s Americas and public sector sales division; Carol Hogsett, a technical staff recruiter at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL); and Katie Antypas, the group leader for the User Services Group at NERSC.

A chemist by training, Ricky has long been an advocate for diversity in computing and oversees a group of computational scientists in which women and minorities are well represented.

Beth, an advocate for women in computing at IU, is one of the founding members of the Women in Informatics and Computing group, the first woman in the computer science department to get tenure, and is working with Maureen Biggers, Assistant Dean of Diversity and Education, to make IU an exemplar for women in computing.

Curt, in his 5-plus years with NetApp (Fortune Magazine #3 Global Best Place to work), has worked both as a line HR Business Partner and in Staffing, giving him the unique perspective of not only having to attract top talent to this world class employer, but also develop and retain some of the mostly highly sought after employees in the Storage market.

Carol, using her education background, engages students across the country recruiting them to LANL where they are supported by mentorship programs. LANL has recently been recognized for its dedication to diversity in the Profiles for Diversity Journal.

Katie, while only being a Group Leader for a year, has encouraged a diverse work environment for her staff and other groups at NERSC.

The panelists will discuss the intersection of their experience with diversity and present ideas and strategies that they have successfully employed to create a diverse workplace. The session will continue with a Q&A session and open discussion.

On Thursday evening, we are holding the other BoF for building a community for women in HPC. One way to improve the gender diversity of the field is to build a community in which women feel comfortable interacting, giving and receiving advice, and sharing success stories that can inspire and encourage women at all career levels.

To this aim, we will be brainstorming ideas for creating and sustaining communities for women in HPC. We will start by identifying the goals of such a group, the people who will be the target audience and who will run the group, when and where women will have the opportunities to network, and what types of events will be run.

Through engaging the audience in a grassroots fashion, women in HPC, we will be assured that the community will reflect their needs and will be run by women passionate about the topic. For example, the community may decide to facilitate meet-ups at popular HPC conferences (including SC), organize local and regional events with a social or technical emphasis, as well as a develop a strong online presence where women can get the support they need and foster relationships with other women in HPC year round.

Whether you are a member of an underrepresented community, a hiring manager looking to improve the diversity of your workforce, or someone who has an interest in the HPC workforce, we hope that you will join us at one or both of these sessions and contribute your experiences, both positive and negative. These will be sessions that you won’t want to miss!

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