Women’s History Month: 5 Things I’ve Learned from More than 40 Women in HPC

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By Cristin Merritt

In celebration of Women’s History Month, SC23 in March is posting profiles of more than 40 women in the field.  Here’s what the project’s lead volunteer, Cristin Merritt, has learned along the way:

Cristin Merritt

I’ve always been a big believer in contributing to positive change. So in 2021, I got the opportunity to volunteer for the Supercomputing (SC) conference series and for the past three years I’ve been part of the communications and media team. I’ve been able to do a lot of positive things for the global HPC community thanks to my time there, but what I’m most proud of (to date) is I have had the ability to showcase the profiles of women leaders in HPC every March.

March is Women’s History Month and is recognised globally as a time to lift up and highlight the work women do to make this world a better and more equitable place. We started off small in 2021 and continued on in 2022, but 2023 offered us an even bigger opportunity. With the theme of “I am HPC” and a keen desire in the volunteer base to profile as many people and roles in the field as possible, I set the ambitious goal of seeing if I could publish 31 profiles of women for the 31 days that make up the month of March.

I got 40 (here they are).

After interviewing, compiling and editing their profiles I noticed five key things that have led these women to not only get into the field of HPC, but to stay there. And while I know that we have come far in promoting more inclusivity, these five points seem to form such a solid foundation for anyone wishing to get into our field –  or any scientific or technical pursuit for that matter – that I’m happy to share them with you now.

So, in celebration of Women’s History Month and the SC23 “I am HPC” profile series, here are the five things I’ve learned from talking to over 40 women in HPC:

  1. There is no ‘right age’ or ‘right way’ to get into HPC, computing or tech.

Across all interviews there was no common age or point that anyone seemed to enter the field of HPC, computing or tech. Some women knew straight-away what they wanted to do, while others came in “by accident” or as part of a natural progression of their studies or careers. So for anyone thinking that they are ‘too young/old/inexperienced’ to be a part I would say I have 40+ reasons you should not believe this in the slightest.

  1. While the overall contributors did study in computers, science or engineering, a surprising number of individuals have backgrounds in the humanities and business.

I thought I was a rarity having a humanities background and winding up in HPC, but it turns out that history, languages and business are a part of many of our contributors’ backgrounds! Being able to translate requirements, work strategy, write code, manage people and systems is more than just having a specific degree type. So if you think your background excludes you from making the transition into HPC or tech — think again.

  1. Almost every profile submission included a mention of a teacher, sponsor, mentor or ally that encouraged them to pursue their career in tech and HPC.

Every time the question “How did you get into HPC?” was posed, nearly all of the women I interviewed referred to a person or person(s) who stood by, championed and/or coached them to enter and remain a part of this field. Fact is, allies in all forms cannot be stressed enough. If there was one thing I would have people take away from this project it’s this: Do whatever you can, no matter how big or small, to help the women and underrepresented groups who want to be in this field to feel included. It can really be as simple as showing up and being a positive voice in the work they do, to as big as pledging and keeping to diversity hire initiatives across your institution.

  1. Almost every single contributor was generous in recommending other women for me to profile.

My biggest fear when I started this project was I was not going to get enough profiles, or people would turn me down in mass. The deadlines are tight and because it is profiling people this project is very personal. I did not want to mess it up. Instead of begging for submissions, of the nominations made from the community 63 percent are going to be published. And not only did they respond, but they almost always recommended others. For every completed submission I had an average of two more women to approach. For those thinking it, that’s my 2024 and 2025 Women’s History Month project – I’ve already figured it out. I was blown away by the generosity of the women in our community.

  1. The overriding factor in our profile contributor’s success was that they truly believed in themselves and the work they do.

Every profile I worked through talked of resilience and self-belief. Unfortunately, women and underrepresented groups often find themselves working longer and harder to achieve success in HPC and tech, and many of those who submitted profiles readily admitted to the hardships they faced. But armed with their firm beliefs and with many of them having allies at their sides they pushed ahead. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today and I found a lot of comfort in reading through their stories, as I hope many others will as they unfold over the month of March.

The SC23 Women’s History Month profile series started on March 1st and ran through today, March 31st. Every day at least one woman in our field will be profiled, with others stepping up for blog features in the themes of scientific discovery, new career paths, sustainability, and more. You can find the features on the SC23 blog, and the short profiles on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.  We’ll wrap up the weekly profiles on our Twitter feed.

I’d like to thank Women in HPC, especially the chapters and affiliates, for stepping in with nominations. Specific thanks go to the following persons: Christine Bassiac, Todd Symanski, Waleed Atallah, Marion Weinzierl, Marion O’Sullivan, Aditi Subramanya, AJ Lauer, Adam Huttner-Koros, Melyssa Fratkin, Matt Probert, Rachel Pruitt, Georgina Ellis, Wil Mayers, Katy Gunderson, and Robin Flaus Scibek. A special mention needs to go to Amanda Hassenplug, whose response to the project helped me shape the blog series.

Cristin Merritt serves as CMO at Alces Flight and currently volunteers as an Executive Committee Member for Women in HPC (WHPC), and within the SC Conference Series as a social media and projects editor.