SC17 Preview: Q&A with Women in HPC’s Toni Collis

By Tiffany Trader

October 31, 2017

HPCwire interviews Women in HPC’s Toni Collis about the importance of diversity and inclusion in high-performance computing. An Applications Consultant in HPC Research and Industry at Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) and also SC17’s Inclusivity Chair, Collis co-founded the Women in HPC (WHPC) network in early 2014 in the UK, with the intention of providing a UK network for women. A half-day workshop at SC14 in New Orleans jump-started the organization’s international activities, which have since expanded considerably. At SC17, the group hosts multiple BoFs, evening networking events and a mentoring program. “Women in HPC is truly an international network of volunteers from academia, industry and national labs from all around the world,” says Collis.

HPCwire: What is the unifying theme for this year’s SC WHPC activities?

Toni Collis

Toni Collis: At SC17 WHPC has a program aimed at enhancing the careers of women at all stages of their careers by providing them with a platform to showcase their work, and also to provide a wide variety of female role models, which both inspire women, but also help to address any implicit bias towards the role of women in HPC that both women and men may have. We will also spend a significant time building networking opportunities for women and also providing managers, hirers, leaders and their organisations with both the key facts around diversity and methods to improve diversity and inclusion.

The full list of WHPC activities at SC17 is available on our special SC17 event page https://www.womeninhpc.org/whpc-sc17/. But we also encourage people to join us (http://www.womeninhpc.org/membership/individual/), so they can stay in touch with our monthly newsletter. WHPC is also on Twitter (@women_in_hpc), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/womeninhpc/) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8105215) where we encourage conversation on what methods are effective on improving diversity, what works for the HPC community and seeking new ideas.

If you want to know more about the activities around diversity and inclusion at SC, please take a look at the SC Inclusivity pages http://sc17.supercomputing.org/inclusivity/.

HPCwire: The HPC Matters program, initiated in 2014, raised awareness about the vital role HPC plays in helping make the world a better place. In that same spirit, what is meant by Inclusivity and why does Inclusivity matter?

Collis: The work of the ‘HPC Matters’ message can be incredibly important to improving diversity and inclusion in the community for women and other groups. Many of us need to know that our work has a positive impact on society. What is fascinating is that this is more prevalent in women than men: 50 percent of women report wanting their work to have a positive impact, whereas only 31 percent of men report this as being crucial to their career choices. As we all know, HPC and supercomputing are indeed vitally important to the progress of society, but we all need to make an effort to share this, and not just delve into the (important!) details of what we do.

The SC17 Inclusivity activities were initiated as a recognition of the importance of diversity in our community. There is growing evidence that diversity is good for research and business, increasing ‘team’ or collective IQ, decision making, citation rates, a business’ return on equity and much more. We strongly believe that an individual’s personal characteristics should not be a barrier to participating, but we are also aware that the barrier to participation for anyone who belongs to an underrepresented group in any field can be high. In 2016, SC16’s General Chair, John West, established a Diversity team to look at this from the conference’s perspective: what can the conference do to impact the workforce, and crucially are their things at the conference that currently negatively impact or stall progress towards diversity? For SC17 the Executive and Steering committee wanted to publicly acknowledge that we are going beyond diversity. Diversity is important, but a feeling of inclusion for all can have an even bigger positive impact: our activities will benefit everyone, not just the underrepresented groups.

HPCwire: What are the focus areas of SC17’s Inclusivity program?

Collis: We have three main aims for 2017:

  • Expand our reach and ‘inclusivity’ activities for groups we have already identified as being under-represented in our community, such as women and underrepresented minorities;
  • To find out more about these and other groups, what is impacting them both positively and negatively, and if there are differences with the rest of the community;
  • To encourage a discussion on the importance and benefits of inclusion and diversity across the world-wide supercomputing community.

The SC17 conference on its own cannot change the recruitment and retention of a diverse and inclusive HPC workforce, but I believe that it can meaningfully contribute by sharing the information we find out, and encourage others to measure their demographics, analyse and address the situation in their own institutions.

To achieve these goals we will be continuing and expanding our provision for attendees with children. The conference now has a Child Policy which enables parents to bring their children to the conference, irrespective of their age while protecting the safety of the child. The conference is also continuing and expanding childcare provision and parents facilities, as well as emphasising how to participate in the Family Day. We have brought back the prayer room and we are constantly seeking to improve the attendee experience, both by expanding our ‘navigating SC’ sessions in an online FAQ and during the conference, so attendees can get answers to common concerns ahead of the conference. We also will be seeking feedback from attendees: by monitoring, measuring and understanding the attendee experience we aim to develop the conference to ensure that the environment is as inclusive and diverse as possible.

HPCwire: I’ve asked you this before, but I think it’s important to reiterate: Who is Women in HPC for?

Collis: Women in HPC really is for everyone. Our vision is to address the underrepresentation of women, and we can’t do that without men being involved in the conversation. Our career activities are open to men, and we actively encourage men to attend our events. Crucially the support we offer women is beneficial to everyone, so although we market our activities as ‘Women in HPC’, we welcome attendance from all. By doing this we are not only building a network of women but a community of women and their allies and advocates who can encourage participation by all. Although our mission focuses on women, our work on disseminating change and best practice often applies to multiple areas, and we are also keen to actively engage with other underrepresented groups. More than anything, we are a welcoming and open community and hope to see more men participate in the discussion in Denver.

HPCwire: You’ve said that there’s no perfect way to be a woman in HPC? What does that mean?

Collis: I believe that the benefit of women to the community is not just our numbers but our diversity of experiences, ideas and innovation. Some people talk about giving women the skills to become more like those already in the community (i.e. men), but I believe that we shouldn’t be changing women but instead changing the system that doesn’t recognise the contribution of those that are a little different. There shouldn’t be an ideal or perfect route into HPC: our community thrives on its interdisciplinary ideas and applications. Instead we need to recognise that what is important is someone’s potential not whether their CV looks like the rest of the people we work with. If the community recognises this we will also expand the proportion of candidates from other groups, not just women, who can fulfill their potential in the supercomputing workforce.

Our uniqueness and diversity is the key to the benefit to the community and to change women to ‘fit in’ would lose that.

HPCwire: What are some strategies for helping women make the most of their time at technical events?

Collis: The same strategies that apply to men! The difference might be whether women are having the same experience of the conference as men. If you find the event intimidating (many do, and not just women!, as it is such a big conference), realise that you are not alone! Consider finding a ‘buddy’ early on in the conference that you can hang out with. Aim to identify the tech program elements that will be of most benefit to you before you turn up, so you can plan your week and avoid the overwhelming experience of choosing on the day. Don’t be afraid to approach speakers, either by asking a question or contacting them afterwards: doing this with a buddy can be less intimidating. The conference is also a great time to meet people who you have connected with virtually for the first time, but as it is such a busy week contact them before the conference to find a time that works for you both.

If you are a more experienced member of the SC community, you might want to use SC as an opportunity to give back. SC is a great way to provide some informal mentorship and sponsorship. Mentorship and sponsorship can have significant impact on the careers of all, with growing evidence that the mentorship is even more important to women than their male peers. SC can be a great place to meet potential mentors, sponsors and collaborators, whatever your career stage.

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