A Seat at the Table – The Value of Women in High-Performance Computing

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It’s fair to say that women continue to be underrepresented in STEM, but the question is whether there is a systemic bias making it difficult for women to join and succeed in tech industries, or has the tech industry failed to motivate and persuade women to join? Intel’s Figen Ulgen shares her view

insideHPC: Why do you think there are fewer women than men working in HPC?

Ulgen: HPC really is no different than any other field in science, computing or engineering in its potential to benefit from diversity, but there are several barriers to achieving it. There’s a definite scale in front of us: at one end, we have managers hiring only highly experienced people, and as a consequence, chances for new graduates decrease in general, and at the other end, there is availability of female graduates in science and technology fields to begin with. The latter challenge begins very early on when girls solely receive gifts of pretty things and tea sets, while boys receive mechanical and electrical toys that encourage tinkering. It’s an overgeneralization to say that’s always the case, but generally these social norms and expectations are there from a very young age.

insideHPC: And what impact do you think that has in STEM?

Figen Ulgen, General Manager of High Performance Computing Software and Cloud at Intel Corporation

Ulgen: If you think of STEM as a funnel, we start narrowing that funnel very early on if we are not encouraging girls to take part in activities and interests that are typically more technical in nature. Over the years, that funnel gets narrower and narrower until you see girls actually starting to favor things like playing house over math and science. One pretty succinct example of this took place a few years back when Barbie launched a talking female doll that said “math class is tough.” In the end, Mattel retracted all the ones that offered that phrase, but why think to have the doll make that statement in the first place? And why only the female doll?

Immediately you’re narrowing down the number of girls by reinforcing that subjects like math are difficult for girls. HPC, like many other specialized fields, often begins with a math or engineering degree and most HPC practitioners have PhDs in their particular fields, but this is at the very tip of the funnel where not only is there a slimmer pick for the workforce, but not nearly enough women are technical leaders. That’s not very encouraging for women aspiring to assume leadership roles in technology.

insideHPC: What can be done to combat that message?

Ulgen: We need to be advocates of change. If our top level leaders aren’t diverse or openly support diversity, it’s far less likely the organizations beneath them will be diverse. As an industry, we must have senior leaders (both men and women) bring up women and underrepresented minorities, and by that I mean provide opportunities, offer a seat at the table, give them a platform and make others generally aware of their capability. It’s also important to assume trust and assume credibility—just as we do with our male counter parts.

I mentor a lot of women in the companies that I work for, and one of the things I notice is that they have jumped through all of those hoops – they’ve gone through being the one of the few girls in their class in high school who was really good at math or joined science competitions, and then jumped into being one of five girls in the 65-person engineering class throughout their education, and then pursued being a PhD student, again where there are quite a few more men than women in the field of HPC, and then became a research scientist.

Support is such a huge issue here, especially as during mid-life when women can basically drop off the corporate ladder because they’ve had children. Most organizations don’t have the structure to support mothers taking extended leaves or allow them to ramp back up to full time upon their return. Or, more importantly, to support those women who want to continue with their career as well as raise their children. In these instances we basically took that tiny sliver of women in HPC and then reduced it to an even smaller sliver. I personally know a few women and men at Intel who had great managers that were supportive during early parenting years so it really makes a difference as to how your organization supports this important phase for parents.

insideHPC: So what should the industry be doing?

Ulgen: For corporations it’s about salvaging the right hiring practices. Intel is doing a great job in this regard. Intel is striving to ensure that qualified, diverse candidates are included in our hiring process. Of course, we’re going to choose the best candidate at the end of the day, and we want to ensure that we’re giving diverse candidates a shot in any given interview. It also goes back to the education of the managers, and that’s a very interesting and important topic.

We have a lot of training at Intel that makes people aware of micro-inequalities. So, you may be hiring a diverse candidate, but you go out to lunch and you only invite the people who are like you. Let’s say the weemanager is a male and he only invites the boys out to lunch, or they are playing basketball and women aren’t invited to the game; that’s micro-inequality. It’s obvious to the people involved – the men and the women – that they’re not being fully included and that can have a significant impact on the working environment.

It’s important that those of us within the industry continue to champion diversity and women in HPC. Diane Bryant, group President of the Data Center Group I work in does an amazing job supporting women. And as a company, we are committed to reaching full representation of women and underrepresented minorities in our U.S. workforce by 2020. That’s an incredibly ambitious goal because what that means is that we are trying to ensure that whatever number of female engineers, or diverse engineers exist out there, that ratio is replicated in our corporate hiring and retaining practices. We definitely put effort into having a strong technical pipeline, and there’s a lot of inclusive work that’s happening at Intel. During my career I’ve seen what generally happens in the industry, and when I look at Intel and what they are trying to do, I see a stark difference and really great effort to actually help remedy all of these things that I’ve talked about.

insideHPC: What impact is that effort having at the company?

Ulgen: A fully diverse and inclusive workspace is fundamental to our ability to innovate and deliver business results. Of course it’s not just about what makes the business win; having a diverse workforce is the right thing to do. Our goal is to get there by 2020, and the impact is that no one at Intel questions your ability to contribute because you’re from a diverse background, or because you’re female. In HPC, I think we have pretty good female representation and in HPC.

insideHPC: Ultimately, why does it matter if there are more women in HPC or not?

Ulgen: If you only look at it from a business results perspective, it matters because it’s proven that diversity generally achieves better results and improves revenue. For me, it’s not just about gender diversity, but having people look at something from different perspectives. Diversity is a system that doesn’t favor one segment of the population, or just one type of thinking over another and that second point is critical because we could have many people from different races and genders, but if they all think along the same lines then we still don’t have a diverse workforce. We are constantly dealing with very complex problems, and we can use any bit of help that will bring a new perspective and opportunity to solve the problem faster, or in a more cost-effective way. It helps to have as many people with completely different points of view as possible.

I can tell you that, as a general manager of a platform software product, I benefited immensely from being part of the sliver, opening it wider, and changing the dynamics within my team. I think the people I hired – who are typically underrepresented – were especially motivated to accomplish and prove themselves, therefore everybody pushed themselves beyond what they would have normally done, because they felt they were given a chance, and wanted to deliver better than their best. It’s important that everyone, regardless of race, gender or background be given the opportunity to come, learn and deliver amazing results.

Figen Ulgen is General Manager of High Performance Computing Software and Cloud at Intel Corporation