Women in HPC: Revelations and Reckoning

By Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

November 30, 2015

Most who work in the high performance computing (HPC) industry agree; people problems are far more complicated than technical challenges. Diversity, or the lack thereof, is the HPC industry’s current grand challenge, and how best to encourage the participation of women in HPC was the theme for several SC15 sessions, including birds-of-a-feather, panel discussion, vendor reception, and a workshop titled Women in HPC (WHPC): Changing the Face of the Future. The panel and workshop were organized by the 2015 HPCwire Workforce Diversity award winning team, WHPC, led by Toni Collis (University of Edinburgh).

While it’s well known that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are less diverse than humanities, business, social science, and other research arenas, computational science & engineering (CS&E) are the least diverse of all. As the long tail of data-intensive research engages more domains, the group portrait has begun to diversify. However, anecdotal evidence suggests the industry still has a lot of work to do before more women will feel comfortable entering and staying in the HPC workforce.

The diversity dialogue has intensified since 2013 after compelling research studies were published. One found that diverse teams are more creative and make better decisions than homogeneous ones, and another suggests that teams with more women are functionally “smarter” than mostly male teams. This is also about the time the Anita Borg Institute noted that while women account for half of the population, and half of the biology and chemistry baccalaureate degrees, they only hold about 28 percent of the CS&E jobs. Another study published in the journal PLOS One found that efforts to promote diversity actually lead to better-quality science, and when there is gender parity among team leadership, there’s an increase in the participation rate by highly, and equally-qualified women. Sadly, Forbes reported that women are turned off by the tech industry’s macho culture, and they are dropping out. Women left behind report the workplace feels even less welcoming with each female colleague’s departure.

Visualization Scientist Dustin Arendt (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) used a technique called storyline visualization to show gender discrepancies among college students that took the ACT exam. Among their observations: women achieving scores that determined them to be a good fit for CS&E careers are instead pursuing liberal arts, health and biological sciences academic tracks, whereas men scoring equally well went on to pursue engineering. The result won Arendt and his teammate—then PNNL intern Yanina Levitskaia from the University of Washington—the highest award of the 2015 International Data-Visualization Contest, sponsored by the IEEE Visualization Pioneers Group.

The revelations come at a critical time. Climate change, public health, food insecurity, energy, and water present daunting challenges that must be resolved through the use of bigger, faster and more accessible HPC. Therefore, we’re going to need more creative, and smarter leadership teams. This is why the historically male-dominated industry has begun to focus on diversity, in general, and explore ways that it can better accommodate women, in particular.

Women are the leading consumers of technology around the world, but testimonials from women and men who attend tech conferences suggest some industry representatives don’t seem to respect their purchasing power or ability to contribute professionally. In many cases, vendor booths, after-hours parties and swag are designed to appeal to the “boys will be boys” class of men who are unlikely to respect women for their intellect. But any woman who has worked in the industry for a length of time knows that male HPC industry colleagues, with rare exception, are more evolved than a conference of 13,000 longshoremen might be, for example.

SC15 dialogue about HPC industry gender discrimination

Some of the most insightful feedback came from men who attended the various SC15 Women in HPC sessions. Most realize there’s a problem, but they aren’t sure what to do about it. Richard Coffey (Argonne) hopes the industry can pull together to form a sustainable diversity plan. “There have been a lot of ad-hoc efforts, but the problem persists,” he said.

On the topic of vendor sales strategies, PhD student Mike DuChene said “Booth babes and product cheerleaders make me feel uncomfortable. Humans should never be objectified; it’s degrading. How could I enjoy myself when some are having fun at the expense of others?” he said.

The workshop conversation shifted to personal safety, and most believe there’s an element of risk if you are one of few females at a party where people are drinking, and the entertainment exploits women. While men may not feel their safety is jeopardized when they have to walk to their hotel afterward, most women would have cause for concern.

Often held at sports bars, conference vendor parties are typically loud, with limited seating. Occasionally, the center of attention is a scantily-clad woman who was hired to entertain attendees. Women who work in the HPC industry report feeling invisible and unappreciated in these environments. If they opt to skip them, they miss the opportunity to network which is an important technical conference outcome that shouldn’t be an exclusively male opportunity.

Newcomers who feel socially obligated to attend, or are unprepared for what they find, report feeling disappointed, disillusioned and disgusted (male and female, alike). At the workshop, one young woman described how she felt at a vendor party when their entertainment, a comedian, delivered commentary that was sexist and demoralizing to women. When she looked around and realized she was one of a few women present (who hadn’t been hired to serve), she felt like the center of unwanted attention; the butt of his jokes. Luckily, she was with two men who were also uncomfortable, and they left to find a more welcoming venue.

Intel-shoe-LeakeConversely, Intel’s Women in HPC reception was an intimate gathering of about 50 in the Four Season Hotel’s outdoor garden. There was plenty of comfortable seating, a choice of fine wine or imported beers, good food and it was quiet enough to foster productive conversation. Their swag was a chocolate high-heeled shoe, which every woman knows causes extreme agony and foot deformation if worn for any length of time. In this case, represented the work-life integration pressures women in the field face every day.

Career female HPC veterans report having become desensitized to misogyny. “We have always had to be one of the guys in order to succeed, and that can be fun, but in reality we have the same wants and desires as most professional women. It’s just that we are incredibly underrepresented in HPC,” said Alice Koniges, a 30-year HPC industry veteran who works for the Berkeley Lab in California.  What is one to do when asked to suggest panel members that are “grey beards”?

alice-Leake“Early in my career, I mostly hid my family ties knowing that having three children would hurt my credibility in the workplace of 20 years ago. Only recently have I felt that gender equality is growing, and I’ve had the confidence through social media to disclose that I worked part-time before my children went to school. However, now I’m proud to share that I’m the mother of two daughters who work in STEM fields (for Google and Microsoft), and a son who is an MD.,” she said. “My success was due to a supportive husband and workplace, but I realize many aren’t as lucky. That said, many events aren’t welcoming to women, such as meetings that require travel to questionable places without escorts, limited or no breaks and generally unfriendly environments. Recently, when participating in an intensive coding session without a break, Koniges complained to her daughter who responded, “If conditions are uncomfortable for you, and you don’t speak up, who will? You have an opportunity to change conditions now so they are better for us in the future.”

What’s being done to improve workforce diversity?

The U.S. National Science Foundation supported four female network engineers to participate in SCinet. The NSF SCinet fellows joined volunteers from academia, government and industry who worked together in the days leading up to the SC15 conference to design and deliver the SCinet infrastructure. The experience strengthened their skills and professional networks which makes them more likely to engage with SC in the future.

Google has begun to embed engineers at historically black and minority-serving institutions where they teach, mentor and advise. FaceBook, Twitter and Pinterest set realistic, but aggressive diversity goals. The HPC industry could learn a lot from these examples.

Intel’s Global Diversity and Inclusion program has pledged more than $300 million to “reengineer the face of technology by 2020.” During SC15 they announced an ACM SIGHPC Intel Fellowship Program that will provide $300,000 each year for five years to support scholars from underrepresented groups who hope to pursue advanced degrees in computational and data science.

SC16 Conference General Chair John West (TACC) announced his diversity theme for next year’s conference, and appointed SC14 General Conference Chair Trish Damkroger (LLNL) to oversee the program. According to West, “SC has provided a ‘parents room’ for several years, and SC16 will be the first SC to provide a childcare service at the convention center. Additionally, the SC16 leadership team is 60 percent female.” The conference program committee explored the possibility of providing safety escorts, but the sponsoring societies will not allow it since that would imply that the conference is liable for attendee safety outside of the convention centers.

During SC15, Damkroger solicited input from the Women in HPC: Changing the Face of the Future workshop attendees. One suggested the conference should provide an anonymous feedback collection method—anonymous in case anyone is reluctant to complain for fear of retaliation. Additionally, a job fair and/or travel support for mid- and late-career professionals who reenter the workforce after eldercare sabbaticals would be useful. There was a discussion regarding the importance of collecting the right data in the first place.

What are governments doing to attract and retain a more diverse workforce?

Since about two-thirds of published research is funded by government agencies, how they support employee work-life balance is a good litmus test for the HPC industry, in general.

When comparing notes with others at SC15, it seems that not all government employee benefit packages are created equal. According to SC17 General Conference Chair Bernd Mohr (Jülich Research Center), when a child is born in Germany, by law, one parent receives paid leave for the first 18 months, but the duration can be split between mother and father. Other European countries, for example France and Sweden, have similar programs. Bernd’s employer goes a step further by offering on-site childcare, and rooming-in options for lactating mothers or parents with children who are either too sick to attend school or medically-fragile with compromised immunity. They also pay for nannies to accompany scientists to technical conferences as long as they are breast-feeding their babies.

nosiku-LeakeConference attendee Nosiku Sikanyika, a systems engineer who works for ZAMREN, Zambia’s research and education network, said female employees who have worked for the Zambian government two or more years are entitled to a three-month paid family leave.

Nosiku described two factors that she feels impact Zambian women’s ability to succeed in this demanding role. She said women must put forth extra effort just to be held on-par with their male peers who work in the same or similar jobs. She attributed her success to a supportive family, specifically her mother and several aunts who have helped her and her husband, a network engineer, manage work-life balance since the arrival of their son two years ago.

The gender expectation double standard and supportive family themes were brought up time and again by several U.S., European, and other female HPC industry veterans during the week’s Women in HPC-themed sessions.

U.S. national laboratories offer a variety of flexible work options, and six-weeks paid maternity leave is common at labs and state universities. Panelist Misbah Mubarak (Argonne National Laboratory) shared Argonne’s recently-published employee diversity data with workshop attendees. While the data reveal there is an opportunity for improvement, Argonne should be commended for having taken this bold step. If others follow, the U.S. can begin to piece together a more accurate portrait of its CS&E workforce.

In a globalized workplace, countries that provide the most favorable employee family benefits have an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining early-career CS&E personnel. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, and joins Papua New Guinea and Oman as the only three countries among 170 surveyed that lack the provision, according to a 2014 report by the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees qualified employees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for family and medical reasons, including the birth or adoption of a child which is the shortest duration provided by countries surveyed in the ILO report. Otherwise, maternity benefits vary from state to state, and paid parental leave is left up to individual employers. Only about 12 percent of U.S. citizens receive paid parental leave, and only 5 percent of its low-wage earners have any form of maternity benefits, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What can organizations’ HR divisions do to affect positive change?

Sysadmin roles often require employees to be on call 24×7 which is nearly impossible for single parents, lactating mothers or mid-career professionals who care for elderly parents. All agree that more flexible work options are needed to accommodate employees, male and female, early- and late-career, who are dually tasked with the role of family caregiver.

In academic environments, HPC sysadmins should be compensated at an industry-competitive rate and not evaluated purely by their academic credentials or years of service. Many are fleeing university environments for better-paid and more flexible jobs with private corporations and industry where they command salaries that are often twice what they earned before. For the university that suffers the loss, it’s often like losing two or more employees since the sysadmin not only supports and maintains the HPC systems, they typically help researchers and train students in the use of the systems. Academic budgets are tight everywhere. When a university sysadmin leaves, the university’s HPC center is at risk since they will have lost a primary champion, and they won’t have allocated enough money to recruit a suitable replacement. Therefore, HR managers must ensure sysadmins are compensated for retention, or the global HPC workforce pipeline could suffer as this problem becomes widespread.

The application checkbox “do you know someone who currently works at XYZ Corporation?” should be eliminated. Relying on employee referrals could lead to an incestuous, and homogeneous workforce. It’s human nature to advocate on behalf of family and friends, and we’re typically closer to people who share the same ideals, culture and gender. Since we’ve already established a case for diversity, we should discontinue this practice.

Job application forms, computational cycle allocation and other industry processes should collect gender and ethnicity information, but the data will be flawed if people don’t trust the process and check the “other” or “do not wish to disclose” boxes for fear of discrimination. Therefore, every effort must be made to offer double-blind processes to alleviate fear while determining a more accurate account of the demographic in question.

Broader engagement and mentoring programs designed to encourage people from underrepresented groups, and provide them with additional psycho-social support are useful and much needed. Corporate leadership training and counseling will help managers overcome bias. ImprovScience, STEM-Trek, Sustainable Horizons Institute, Women in HPC, and other nonprofit organizations have been formed to assist HPC industry partners with a variety of related issues.

Further, it’s important to exercise zero tolerance and mitigate each situation, no matter how subtle, so a discriminatory climate isn’t cultivated.

Dangerous, but common myth: We must lower standards in order to attract and retain a more diverse workforce

In fact, women, minorities and people with disabilities are equally capable of achieving excellence in STEM fields, but too often they’re subject to gender-based stereotypes and bias, whether intentional, unintentional, or due to varying cultural expectations. Bias-related mistreatment in the workplace erodes employee self-confidence. Without confidence, it’s impossible for anyone to succeed, no matter how brilliant or accomplished the individual happens to be.

Women in HPC Group-Workshop-Leake

Women in HPC: Changing the Face of the Future, workshop poster presenters, from left: Christine Harvey (MITRE Corporation), Janki Bhimani (Northeastern University), Sally Ellingson (University of Kentucky), Elsa Gonsiorowski (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Nasibeh Nasiri (University of Massachusetts, Lowell) and Trishali Nayar (IBM India Systems Development Laboratory).

To keep the conversation alive, watch Women in HPC (WHPC), and follow @Women_in_HPC on Twitter.

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