Women in HPC Luncheon Shines Light on Female-Friendly Hiring Practices

By Tiffany Trader

July 13, 2017

The second annual Women in HPC luncheon was held on June 20, 2017, during the International Supercomputing Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. The luncheon provides participants the opportunity to network with industry leaders and meet new contacts as well as brainstorm about ways to improve diversity and inclusivity for women within the HPC community.

As keynote speaker Angelo Apa of Lenovo noted, “if this was an easy problem to solve we would have fixed it already, so we need to generate ideas. My request of you today is in exchange for lunch help us solve these problems.”

Angelo Apa, Lenovo

Apa, technical sales and business development director at Lenovo Enterprise business group, shared the reality that between 18 and 30 percent of the workforce in the tech industry is female depending upon the country. “This is rubbish anyway you look at it,” he said. “We really need to do something about this.”

Lenovo’s numbers are better: 37 percent of its total global workforce is female, 14 percent of execs and 30 percent of managers. But, as Apa is quick to point out, these numbers are skewed by China having representation of women far above the global average.

“There is inherently a culture of diversity at all times in Lenovo,” said Apa, who’s worked in tech for over 30 years. The business was started in 1984 in Beijing by 10 people, seven men and three women. “Because they wanted to grow so quickly they realized they had to become multi-country, multi-cultural very quickly, so the whole diversity thing generally is pretty strong culturally inside of Lenovo. Now what we need to do is work on how we can develop that so we see a higher degree of general diversity than we see today in Europe.”

“We need to make sure that we are mirroring society because if we’re not, then we’re not relevant,” said Apa. “It doesn’t matter if you make the best servers in the world; it doesn’t matter if you make the cheapest servers in the world. It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. If you’re not mirroring your customer, then that customer will not buy from you. So that’s something that we really need to work on from a business perspective as well as everything else.”

In 2007, Catherine Ladousse, executive director of communication EMEA at Lenovo, started the Women in Lenovo Leadership (WILL) program, which includes an executive training program that fast-tracks talented women in the company, providing them with individual coaching and professional development sessions.

At a WILL breakfast event in Milan held earlier this year, Apa was speaking with Paul Rector who runs the Lenovo global accounts business worldwide about recruiting women applicants. Apa’s job advertisements were failing to attract women. Rector recalled the advice of a hiring consultant he had worked with: write job descriptions in a female-friendly way.

“But surely a job description is just factual,” Apa thought, “What does it mean to write it in female-friendly way?”

Apa recently went through a female recruiter to fill an open position, a pre-sales technical role. Going through all of the usual channels resulted in not a single female applicant.

“Can you help me understand what’s going on here and how to improve recruitment efforts?” Apa asked the room.

Rebecca Hartman-Baker, Berkeley Lab (center)

“Sounds like you need new channels,” said Rebecca Hartman-Baker of Berkeley Lab. “It’s like if you were going to go out fishing and you went to your fishing hole and there were no fish there, you’d find another fishing hole where you can find the fish.”

Allison Kennedy, co-founder and senior advisor Women in HPC and director, Hartree Centre, emphasized the need for more effective outreach. “I think you have to contact woman directly, go through networks. Women are more likely to know other women.”

Another idea was to advertise with Women in HPC, which is completely free.

The potential for sexism in the recruiter, even if female, was also raised and the importance of implicit bias training.

The 70 or so attendees, mostly women and a few male colleagues, were not short on ideas for crafting a female-friendly job description. If the job description specifies expert-level experience or cites an extensive list of requirements, women are more likely than men to take themselves out of the running. “Make sure you’re not making a laundry list where you’re looking for a purple unicorn with rainbow tail, something that doesn’t exist,” added Hartman-Baker. “Women tend to look at a list like that and if they don’t have 100 percent of all of those qualifications they’re not going to apply. With men, it’s 40 percent. If they have 40 percent, they will apply.”

Micron’s Richard Murphy added that in his experience teaching undergraduate classes, even when the smartest person in the class is a woman, the person most likely to answer a question is a guy who was guessing. “So it does not surprise me that a woman would look at a list like that and think they had to check all of those boxes,” he said.

Toni Collis, EPCC and Women in HPC

Research conducted by Women in HPC backs up this point. A study done with International HPC Summer School applicants found that even with similar experience levels, women would consistently rate themselves lower than men when asked to rate their knowledge of skills.

“I think one of the barriers is when we present it as ‘you must be an expert’,” said Toni Collis, director of Women in HPC. “How many times have we read a job description where you must be an expert in MPI, and how many women would call themselves an expert compared to their male colleagues?”

Cristin Merrit, Alces Flight

Cristin Merrit, partner manager for Alces Flight, questioned the wisdom of gatekeeping based on formal technical education. “When you are hiring for pre-sales, you are already asking for hen’s teeth. You don’t want to shrink your pool before you even get out the door.” Here, cover letters allow applicants to explain their background and skill sets when they don’t fit traditional boxes.

In wrapping up the networking event, Collis shared, “It’s all well and good HR telling us what to do, but if it’s not working for us why are we doing it?”

“You’re here because you get this, right?” Collis told the audience. “The people who really need to be here aren’t here. So I ask you to go and be ambassadors for Women in HPC as an initiative. If you aren’t already a member, join right now and get your male colleagues to join.”

Membership for individuals is free and includes a monthly newsletter with updates on what Women in HPC is doing and why they’re doing it which is the crucial thing, according to Collis.

“I wake up every morning to change the world — that’s why I get out of bed in the morning, that’s why I do this,” said Collis. “Don’t get me wrong — it’s fantastic that occasionally I get to play with the fastest machines in the world, but the reason I do it is because I’m here to change the world. I think as a community, HPC and supercomputing, we spend an awful lot of time telling people outside of our community and the taxpayers at the end of the day that we do it because we can make this big machine; we forget the why, we forget the science that it enables, we forget the fact that really we can save lives with climate change studies and with weather prediction and so much more. We can do so much with HPC, but we don’t sell that message enough. And if we sell that message, it’s not just going to improve the situation with funding, it’s going to bring in women.

“I always use my husband as an example here,” Collis continued. “He’s in HPC as well. We’re two sides of the same coin. He is a computer scientist at heart, it’s where he belongs. He wakes up every morning because he just loves coding. I mean he just can’t get enough of it. I wake up every morning to change the world, the coding is just something that happens. But I do this because of what it can do and everybody is here for a different reason, but if we’re only given one side of it, the coding side, we’re missing a huge swath of people who are attracted by the fact that we make a difference. So please go away and be an ambassador.”

Women in HPC is entirely funded by donations and support, including the support of EPCC who set up Women in HPC. The Women in HPC luncheon was made possible through the support of ISC, PRACE, Lenovo and Xand McMahon. Find out more about Lenovo’s initiative to encourage gender diversity in the workplace at www.lenovowomen.com.

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