A Celebration of Women in HPC

By Tiffany Trader

July 7, 2016

Why are there not more women in HPC? This was the simple question that led to the formation of the Women in HPC (WHPC) network nearly three years ago. Under the direction of founder Dr. Toni Collis of the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC), the organization has been gaining momentum and making a name for itself since its inaugural Women in HPC workshop at SC14. At ISC 2016 in Frankfurt, Germany, WHPC expanded its program to three events: its fourth international Women in High Performance Computing (WHPC) workshop; a BOF on women in HPC; and a networking luncheon.

The BOF (June 21) and the workshop (June 23) shared the theme of addressing the gender gap in HPC. Women in HPC has found that women make up between 5 and 17 percent of HPC users, researchers and conference attendees. More broadly, reports show women holding only about a quarter of the technology jobs; while in executive positions, the number is about half that.

The BOF and workshop programs focused on the importance of increasing diversity in the workplace, the effect of implicit and explicit biases, and the development of best practices that can be implemented by employers to improve diversity in their organizations. The networking lunch (June 22) offered the opportunity to celebrate the successes of women in high performance computing careers and provided a forum for women in HPC to make new contacts and friendships.

“We are bringing together women leaders and young career women in corporate organizations, research institutions, academia, and business for networking, mentoring, and sharing of knowledge,” read the invitation from WHPC organizers, “Come and meet the Women in HPC team, leading employers, network with other women in the community, and find out about the Women in HPC initiative.”

The luncheon brought together women from the vendor community as well as research and academia, however representation from women starting out their careers was not as high as hoped, said Collis. “We made an effort to target early career women, but universities send far fewer women to ISC than SC. I think they send their senior people to ISC and those are still primarily men,” shared Collis. “It’s a problem that we need to change.”

Tony Collis

WHPC aims to broaden participation of women and other underrepresented groups across all areas of HPC and attendance at SC and ISC plays a crucial role in career development. When the general audience of mostly men literally does not see or interact with their women peers, it leads to biases about what women are interested in or capable of. WHPC is shining a light on such challenges, exposing their existence and validating the experience of women who witness these biases and other forms of discrimination first-hand. (For insight into the self-propagating nature of biases, I refer you to this elucidating blog post by Lorena Barba, associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the George Washington University.)

Dr. Collis kicked off the program by recalling sentiments shared by Carolyn Devany, president of Data Vortex Technologies, who was a panelist at the BOF the day before.

“‘This community is charged more than any other with the responsibility of charting our future course and the preservation of our planet. Women are in it for the long haul; we play an extremely important role,'” quoted Collis.

“I could not have said it better than that,” she continued in her own words. “HPC really is fundamental to changing the planet and making it a better place. If 51 percent of the human race is not involved and is not represented, that is an issue and so we are here today to make sure those women are represented. We are here to celebrate what we’ve achieved so far, to celebrate the role that women are already playing and to take this forward. I hope that you meet like-minded people, share ideas on how we can improve the situation for each other, and network. For those of you who are starting out in HPC and ready for the next step, meet your peers. For employers, meet the people who are going to shape the future of our community.”

Delivering the keynote for the luncheon was Marie-Christine Sawley, who is esteemed for her work on numerous high-profile HPC projects. Since 2010, Sawley has been director of the Intel Exascale Lab in Paris. Prior to this, she was a senior scientist for the ETH Zurich in the CMS computing team at CERN for three years; and from 2003 and 2008, she was the director of the CSCS, the Swiss national supercomputing center.

Sawley traced the path that brought her into the HPC fold from her start as a plasma physicist to her current post at the Intel Exascale lab.

“In the arc of my career, I’ve been observing and questioning why since I was working so closely with universities and even today still do, why do we have so many difficulties not only in HPC but in computer science, attracting young women,” she said.

Sawley recalled being the only girl in an academic program with seven or eight boys, noting that while strides have been made toward greater gender equality, there is still a way to go. An ongoing paradigm shift in HPC could be key to this shift.

“I think we need to drive this change,” said Sawley. “There are a number of things that have to do with interest, with bias and with the way we address HPC and what is it good for. As a community we need to push the message further. Indeed, HPC has come from CFD and meteorology and modeling, and advance materials as well as fundamental sciences — but in the last ten years, it has moved a lot toward impacting our day to day life. And this is nothing compared to what will happen in the future. It’s impacting many things. It’s impacting the way we organize our transportation system and the way we address the question of research and medicine. The world is made of 51 percent females and the numbers show that in HPC and in technology, we are not close to even half of what the statistics would show.

“At the IDC breakfast, the presenters showed the innovation in HPC awards and the three main topics are things that are impacting our day to day life. One was parcel delivery; the second had to do with cancer research for children; and the third was looking at improved diagnostics for prenatal screening of genetic disease. And if you were at Raj Hazra‘s keynote, he gave a fascinating account of the connected car, and everybody is driving and buying cars.”

With the well-documented HPC talent shortage, inclusive and broad engagement efforts are essential, Sawley stressed.

“Do we really want to have the capacity to think, produce, come to market, communicate about and leave talents on the table? Probably not. This is the kind of thing we want to share here. In essence, for Intel this is a very important issue,” she said.

“You have heard that at Intel we are going through an evolution. We are putting the accent from the PC market to things that have to do with the datacenter technology and IoT. This is a major orientation and it’s really for the long haul. In doing that, we definitely know that we need all the talents and we need more diversity and we need also more capacity to engage into HPC.

“I have plenty of colleagues inside Intel that are working in HPC and you don’t need to be specifically interested in technology development – you have plenty of different areas you can contribute to HPC, from communications, marketing and finance to running the company. The message is we need to be more vocal about how HPC is impacting our day to day life. It’s not only for looking at astrophysics, which by the way is very interesting and I want to push that technology forward, but beyond that there are many important things that are impacting our day to day.”

At SC15 Intel announced a fellowship program in partnership with ACM SIGHPC aimed at increasing the participation of under-represented groups – women students and those with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds – in computational and data science graduate programs worldwide. The call for proposals for the Intel Computational & Data Science Fellowships went out in March and the winners will be announced on July 31. Recipients will be formally recognized during SC16.

The luncheon event was held at no charge to participants thanks to the support of sponsors Intel, DDN, Data Vortex, and IBM.

“Bringing together women at different points in their careers is an incredibly empowering function of Women in HPC,” said DDN’s Molly Rector, who was at the event. “The lessons learned from each other as well as the incredible networking opportunities make the luncheon and ongoing relationships incredibly value add to my personal and professional life.”

For more information about WHPC, visit http://www.womeninhpc.org/.

Group photo courtesy of Julita Inca (@Yulwitter).

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