Interview: Women in HPC to Host Special Events at ISC 2016

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This week, the Women in HPC organization announced a series of special events coming up at ISC 2016. To learn more, we caught up with WHPC Director Dr. Toni Collis from EPCC at the University of Edinburgh.

insideHPC: Let’s start at the beginning. What lead to the formation of Women in HPC?

Dr TONI COLLIS Women in HPC Director EPCC, University of Edinburgh

Women in HPC Director
EPCC, University of Edinburgh

Dr Toni Collis: Women in High Performance Computing (WHPC) began with a question – “Why are there not more women in HPC?”

Women in HPC was set up when a group at EPCC, the Scottish Supercomputing Centre based at the University of Edinburgh, wondered why EPCC seemed to be unusual in its high proportion of female staff. They noticed that when working with other international teams, none of their project colleagues were women!

This led to a mission to find the answer. There were groups such as Women in Physics and the British Computer Society Women’s Group that focused on supporting women, but nothing in the supercomputing community. Further, there seemed to be a lack of knowledge on the number or proportion of women and the underlying reasons for the lack of female staff. Some thought the problem related back to lack of women in “traditional” male-dominated subjects such as physics and mathematics. But even if women took these courses in school, would they go into supercomputing fields? There seemed to be a lot of ideas about why the field was so male dominated, but no quantifiable information and no one looking into possibilities for leveling the playing field.

insideHPC: What events do you have planned for Women in HPC at ISC 2016?

Dr Toni Collis: ISC 2016 is an exciting time for Women in HPC: we are holding what have become our “standard” events, and we are also hosting one very important celebration!

The 4th International Women in HPC Workshop
Addressing the Gender Gap in the High Performance Computing Community
Thursday 23-June 9am – 1pm

We will be discussing solutions to improve the representation of women in our community. This won’t be your normal ISC workshop – we are actively seeking the participation of the audience so that we can gather new and novel ideas to improve diversity in HPC. This is not a simple problem; if it was, the situation would have improved by now. We hope by drawing in those interested in understanding the underlying reasons why women are leaving supercomputing and sharing what they have done to improve diversity, that we can discuss unique new ideas to change this trend.

We will also be showcasing the work of early HPC career women, providing them with the opportunity to present a lightning talk on their research. This is a particular passion of Women in HPC: if we want to attract and retain women in our workforce we need to provide them with the opportunity to thrive. That means providing them a platform to stand on so that they can attend events such as ISC, share their work, meet peers, and build their networks.

BoF: Addressing the Gender Gap in the High Performance Computing Community
Tuesday, June 21, 2016: 10:15 am – 11:15 am

Our BoF continues our themes with a discussion of methods employers and community leaders can use to improve diversity in the workplace, the challenges this can present, and how to overcome these challenges. We will present an introduction on how unconscious bias can impact promotions, hiring decisions, and behaviour in the workplace. Then we will hear from Jacqueline Chen of Sandia Laboratories on what they are doing to improve diversity and what HPC can learn from Chen’s specialist field of Combustion. Data Vortex President Carolyn Devany will highlight the need for more senior executives in the HPC industry, female angel investors and entrepreneurs, and the damage that results in not having women at the top in our field.

Networking Lunch
Wednesday 22-June 12:30 – 1:45

We are hosting a celebration! We will bring leading companies from the HPC community together with women who are working in HPC at all levels, to celebrate every single woman’s contribution to supercomputing. This luncheon will provide a completely different experience from what is normal for the majority of the women that will attend: a room full of women (with the occasional man!).

insideHPC: ISC looks to be supporting Women in HPC in a big way. Can you tell us how other organizations are contributing to your efforts?

Dr Toni Collis: We are really lucky to receive a huge amount of voluntary effort from people in the community as well as support for our events from HPC businesses. In particular EPCC and Xand McMahon have provided a huge amount of support for Women in HPC. For ISC we are delighted to thank a whole host of sponsors who have enabled us to provide free registration for our luncheon, which is essential if we are to encourage women to attend and network! Our celebration sponsors include: Intel, Data Vortex, DDN, IBM, Intersect360 Research, PRACE, and Seagate. And of course, we are delighted to have insideHPC as our workshop media sponsor. Women in HPC would not exist without the support of our volunteers and companies like these, and we value every contribution.

insideHPC: If Women in HPC achieves its goals, what will the world look like?

Dr Toni Collis: For starters, ISC will be a different type of event entirely! Most people don’t notice how un-diverse HPC really is. But when you start counting the number of women in the room, at the table, or in the C-suite, it is quite surprising. For example, at an exascale session last year one of our WHPC team members counted more than 200 people in the room, but found only three women, one of them being the session chair. Imagine how different the room would be if 50% of the participants and speakers were women!

If we achieve our goals we won’t just improve the proportion of women in the HPC community, it is likely that our activities will have a broader impact on diversity as a whole, encouraging us to look beyond any stereotypes that we currently see. Science will progress at an even greater speed – diversity improves team performance and publication citation rates. Most importantly of all, there will be no need for Women in HPC to exist. We will no longer need a dedicated organisation to address these challenges!

insideHPC: How can our readers engage?

Dr Toni Collis: Attend our events at ISC. You can find out more about our ISC week activities and how to register here:

If you aren’t attending ISC but are interested in what we are doing, consider becoming a member: individual membership is free and we are also looking for participation from HPC groups, non-profits, universities, projects, and businesses. To keep up to date with everything we do, be sure to follow us on social media.

ISC 2016 takes place June 19-23 in Frankfurt.

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  1. Nages Sieslack says

    We are glad to do our bit as conference organizers. For example in 2017 there will be a better gender balance in the program committee. Hopefully these key HPC appointees will address the issue on a deeper level.

    Starting 2015 we are actively supporting and promoting the aspirations of The Women in HPC. We share the common hope, i.e. seeing more women in HPC, and also at ISC. Now our Tuesday keynote is also dedicated to promoting female excellence in HPC.

    We sincerely hope that approaching the issue of imbalance from different directions will bear fruit in the coming years.

    We also have an all girls team in this year’s Student Cluster Competition. Wish them luck!

    Apart from the research community doing their bit, vendors ought to get involved in promoting gender equality as well. There is currently an imbalance in efforts put in to improving gender participation.