Diversity in the workplace remains a challenge in HPC and the computing industry at large. The Women in HPC team at SC12 will host a BoF session on Policies and Practices for Building a Diverse Workforce on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 5:30pm. To learn more, I caught up with the session leaders to discuss the BoF and why it’s so important for SC12 attendees to support this session.
insideHPC: What is this BOF all about and why did you want it to be part of SC12?
Women in HPC: Studies show that diversity of background in a group translates into superior performance on creative tasks. Unfortunately, the HPC field is largely monolithic — women and underrepresented minorities make up only a small fraction of the community. As HPC professionals (and members of an underrepresented group), we would like to see the field grow to its full potential, so we are trying to make the field more welcoming to everyone by sharing ideas between organizations on successful recruiting and retention policies that help encourage diversity. We’re excited to have two influential members of the HPC community speak at our BOF and share some policies and practices from their organizations: Lucy Nowell from the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) in DOE and Irene Qualters from the Office of Cyberinfrastructure (OCI) at NSF. After their talks, we will have a Q&A session.
insideHPC: Who are the session leaders and what is their stake in this issue?
Women in HPC: The session leaders are: Fernanda Foertter, Rebecca Hartman-Baker, Hai Ah Nam, and Judy Hill. We all met as colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). (Rebecca recently moved to iVEC in Australia.) Three years ago, Rebecca persuaded us to host a BoF about Women in HPC at SC10 which was more popular than we expected. At that BoF we learned two things: 1, Women in HPC really crave a community, which is something we are trying to develop both at SC and throughout the year. 2, Employers want to encourage diversity, but they just don’t know what to do. This BoF tries to address that second point by creating a forum where we discuss both the successful and failed practices that organizations have employed. While the focus of this BOF is encouraging a diverse workforce, a side benefit of many of these policies and practices is they often are perceived by employees as benefiting everyone in an organization. For example, while many women desire a flexible work schedule to allow them to meet both their work and family responsibilities, the same flexible work schedule is also beneficial to men who share in those same family responsibilities.
insideHPC: A new study by researchers at Yale concluded recently that Science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills. How can we begin to turn this around?
Women in HPC: This is certainly a depressing result, but based on our anecdotal experience, not surprising. The study suggests that interventions addressing faculty members’ gender bias would help fix this problem. Being aware of the existence of implicit bias, and judging candidates based on quantifiable criteria can make a big difference. In our experience, we see this same sort of thing happening with hiring, promotions, and conference speaker invitations. Creating awareness about unconscious biases can make a big difference, especially when the person who brings it up is a member of the majority group. There is also research that shows that females in male-dominated fields tend to downplay their qualifications and/or technical competence, which can put them at a disadvantage during interviews.
insideHPC: How do you think this kind of study affects young women considering a career in science?
Women in HPC: There are pros and cons. On the pro side, in the case where a young person internalizes their experience, this study may help them realize that discrimination is often systemic. And now that the problem has been revealed, it’s possible to take steps to fix it through education and awareness. On the con side, knowing that you are going to be discriminated against is sure to scare off otherwise qualified people. Research also shows that seeing women in technical fields and in leadership positions can have a significant effect on morale, recruiting and retention. So a BoF session like this helps reveal this sort of information to hiring teams, but can also be an encouraging force to other women in the field to see so many of us gathered in one place.
insideHPC: It would seem that achieving diversity is difficult in an organization without growth. What is the business climate like out there right now in research and academia?
Women in HPC: Hiring new employees with diverse backgrounds is one way to increase the diversity of an organization, but without policies supporting retention, the results may be only temporary. In the United States (and most of the world), organizations dependent on government funding are going through lean times. In the business world, recovery is in sight, but we are not yet there, so there is quite a bit of conservatism about hiring new people. So it is hard to increase diversity through making new hires in this environment, which makes focusing on policies for retention all the more important. And paradoxically, in these hard times it is these policies (especially if they cost money) that most often get the ax. In many countries, though, these types of polices are enshrined in the law (e.g., in Australia, by law all employees receive at least 10 days paid personal/carer’s leave, and employers must work with primary caregivers of children under school-age or under 18 with a disability to accommodate for their caregiving schedule. Unfortunately workers in the United States do not have these types of protections. While new positions are not being added in this economy, it is equally important to focus on retention while encouraging the education of next generation of diverse technical workers.