In this special guest feature, Toni Collis from EPCC writes about her ongoing efforts to improve diversity in High Performance Computing.
Improving diversity at conferences should be high up on the agenda for everyone. It is generally accepted that diversity in the workforce is a good thing: improving the representation of women in teams improves the overall performance of the teams, seeing women in positions that were traditionally male dominated helps to overcome the negative stereotypes that women are not suited to these roles as well as providing visible role models for future generations.
HPC is currently preparing for the exascale challenge: a time that may require a complete re-think of our current HPC concepts, and at the very least will require major adaptations to take into account fault tolerance, accelerators, power usage and software design among many other issues. At the other end of the HPC spectrum, we are reaching a point where the future of scientific breakthroughs may rely on HPC concepts, as more and more technologies, systems and databases are designed, analysed and understood using supercomputing technology and programming methods. The challenges are great.
Thus, to help achieve our goals, quickly and efficiently it is essential that we include all of the stakeholders of the potential benefits of HPC in the future design and implementation of such technologies, and this must therefore include women.
This is why I was delighted to be approached by the organizers of the EuroMPI 2016 conference to act as Diversity Chair. EuroMPI, now in its 23rd year, is the pre-eminent conference for the current dominant method of programming parallel architectures: message passing and the associated API: the Message Passing Interface (MPI). If MPI is to rise to the challenge of helping HPC take the leap to exascale, but also to address the challenge of rapidly becoming a programming paradigm available to the everyday programming due to the growing availability of small parallel clusters, MPI needs to adapt and change. This is a theme that EuroMPI 2016 will embrace as it addresses ‘the modern challenges to MPI’s dominance in HPC’. However, to embrace this theme and move forward effectively, the organizers recognize that women have to be involved in the debate.
It should be noted that the relationship between the proportion of women at a conference and the proportion of women in a community are not well understood. Are women equally, more or less likely to attend conferences than their male peers? Some suggest that women are less likely to attend conferences because of childcare/caring commitments. Others suggest that women are more likely to attend conferences because they are viewed as better at networking and representing their business. What is clear is that at this point no one knows. What we do know is that attending conferences is good for an individual’s career. Conferences facilitate the building of networks, keep people up to date with the most recent research and findings and provide the opportunity to discuss and present your work, thereby improving a persons standing in the community.
Thus it is important that everyone has an equal chance to attend conferences and events if they wish to. If there are barriers to participation in place for any group, irrespective of gender or any other personal characteristic, these need to be identified and removed or minimized.
EuroMPI has never before collected gender of attendees or considered the gender of authors. This is a similar approach to the majority of other conferences, and something that Women in HPC (WHPC) is attempting to change. It has often proved controversial: collecting personal information that isn’t necessary should be avoided. Collecting any personal information can impact an individual causing effects such as stereotype threat to emerge or be misconstrued to be used as a way to adhere to quotas.
However, if we are to understand the representation of women in the HPC and MPI communities we need to know how many women there. So this year, for the first time, EuroMPI will ask registrants for their gender and report our findings in aggregate form after the conference. This can then be used in future years as a starting point to see if changes need to be made and if, when changes are implemented, they have any effect on the diversity of the attendees.
As it is the first time that EuroMPI is openly considering how to improve gender diversity. Our intention is not to hinder the attendance of men, but instead to remove as many possible barriers as is realistically possible that may apply to women (many of which apply to men to).
The first thing we realized is that this is not easy an easy task! If this were an easy problem to solve someone would already have done so: enough people spend time considering how to improve diversity that if there were a ‘silver bullet’ we would all have implemented it by now! Gender initiatives are often viewed with trepidation as no one wants to damage the integrity of the conference.
There is often concern that recording gender of authors will be used to influence the outcome of the review process. We did record the gender of author submissions and therefore we can identify the corresponding acceptance rate, but we set no goals, this is simply as a recording process to help understand if women are currently well represented and how this changes in future years.
We also challenged ourselves to consider new and exciting speakers who have not been considered before. Again, we did not set quotas: this was fundamental to our approach, but we did need to look outside our immediate list of contacts. This has been a rewarding experience for the committee as it has encouraged us to meet new people and find out what they are doing. It has also resulted in a list of diverse and fascinating topics for the keynote programme.
Finally, the conference has become the first ever event to partner with Women in HPC. The partnership requires the conference to take out the steps outlined above and in exchange, the conference is advertised to WHPC members and a WHPC event will run alongside the event (although this is open to all attendees of the conference, not just women).
 J. B. Bear and A. W. Woolley, “The Role of Gender in Team Collaboration and Performance”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 36 No. 2, June, 2011, 146–53
Now in its 23rd year, EuroMPI is the leading conference for users and developers of MPI. The aim of this conference is to bring together all of the stakeholders involved in developments and applications related to the Message Passing Interface (MPI). As the preeminent meeting for users, developers and researchers to interact and discuss new developments and applications of message-passing parallel computing, the annual meeting has a long, rich tradition. This year’s conference will be held in Edinburgh, Scotland from 25 to 28 September 2016.
See related talks along these lines in our WHPC Workshop Video Gallery.