Batswana Gems

By Elizabeth Leake

December 20, 2018

Most who work in the high-performance computing (HPC) industry agree; people problems are far more complicated than technical challenges. As I wrote in a 2015 HPCwire feature titled, “Women in HPC: Revelations and Reckoning,” diversity, or the lack thereof, is the HPC industry’s current grand challenge. How to encourage gender and ethnic inclusion in HPC, and retaining women and minorities once they join, continues to confound even the best outreach and engagement officers in the field.

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. But the HPC industry still has a lot of work to do before more women and ethnic minorities will feel comfortable entering and staying in its workforce.

The diversity dialogue intensified when compelling research studies were published in 2013. 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. But then Forbes reported that women are turned off by the tech industry’s macho culture, and that causes some to drop out of the workforce. Women that are left behind report the workplace feels even less welcoming with each female colleague’s departure.

These revelations came at a critical time. Climate change, public health, food insecurity, energy and water scarcity present global grand challenges that must be resolved through the use of bigger, faster and more accessible HPC; and a well-prepared workforce. We need diverse teams of computationally-savvy, creative and smart leaders who are passionate about solving these issues.

I recently wrote a two-part feature for Top500 about student cluster competitions. I wanted to investigate why some countries that had participated in the past were not represented at the 2018 International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) Student Cluster Competition for the first time since its inception. To summarize my findings, students from the US and United Kingdom, in general, have so much debt, that they’re not registering for time-intensive extracurricular activities. They must work while they study and during breaks to stave off as much of the financial burden as possible.

But without this extracurricular experience, they will be disadvantaged in the global job market once they graduate. Fewer schools can afford to send teams to competitions, and most who do, participate in one domestic competition, at best. Conversely, Chinese and Singaporean teams participate in as many as seven contests each year, and South Africans three; the added exposure is likely to have contributed to their success.

Two out of the top three winning teams at ISC lacked gender diversity. Tsinghua’s team has never featured women; European and US teams have been dominated by white male students. South Africa is the welcome exception among elite top performing teams in terms of ethnic and gender diversity.

Botswana didn’t get the gender or race “memos” when it comes to STEM exclusion. With Dr. Audrey Masizana leading the University of Botswana Computer Science (UB-CS) department, students have a strong female role model at the helm. I noted that women comprised half of the 2018 UB-CS graduating class. I am not aware of another CS program anywhere else in the world that can claim 50 percent female participation. Students in Botswana are available to participate in unpaid, extracurricular activities because few have student debt. In fact, most lack access to credit. While Botswana is known for its diamonds, I think its true gems are the young Batswana women who are passionate about making a difference in our world.

Molly Kgobathe (left) and Boipelo Mosetho

I was delighted when UB Graduate Students and Teaching Assistants Boipelo Mosetho and Molly Kgobathe sought my help with setting up a Women in HPC-Botswana chapter.

They envision their chapter being autonomous—separate and apart from UB—so that it can draw stakeholders from regional schools and industries. They hope the relationships fostered by their chapter will lead to more student internships and HPC industry jobs for women.

I posed the question; are they interested in forming an all-female student cluster competition team that could train with the South Africans in July, compete against them in December at CHPC, and against global competitors the following June at ISC? STEM-Trek would liaise with South Africa, help fundraise, find US trainers and correspond about their activities. With US trainers, there will be no conflict of interest when the battle lines are drawn with South Africa!

They liked the idea and have already drafted a charter and survey to gauge student interest. Since they are teaching assistants, they know who the rock star performers are, so recruiting at UB should be easy for them.

Batswana Gems are willing to do the hard work, but they will need sponsors, trainers, mentors and more. If you’d like to help them shine in time for February training, please contact [email protected].

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