Women: flock to Frankfurt for top-flight supercomputing career

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With a ‘birds of a feather’ (BoF) session and a special workshop on Women in HPC, the issue of gender diversity is prominently on the agenda of this year’s European Supercomputing Show, ISC High Performance, which will take place in Frankfurt in July.

Both events are intended to promote diversity in high-performance computing (HPC), building on recent research, highlighted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, that indicates the existence of a ‘diversity dividend’. A more diverse workforce boosts the bottom line for businesses, with mixed workforces raising revenues by around 40 per cent compared to all-male or all-female workforces.

Improving diversity in the workforce is generally recognised as essential to meet the needs of a growing industry, improve European competitiveness, and improve productivity. However, women are greatly outnumbered by men in the HPC community and the sector struggles to attract female candidates when jobs are advertised.

The BoF session in Frankfurt will hear from women working in the HPC industry and will explore issues such as unconscious bias, workforce policies, educational choices, and opportunities with a view to helping companies and institutions in HPC to attract and retain talented women.

The Women in HPC workshop will bring together female early-career researchers -- with a focus on European participation -- providing them with an opportunity to showcase their work and to meet role models and peers in an environment designed to move beyond the stereotype of HPC as a male-dominated field. It will open with an introduction to current research by the Women in HPC network, the demographics of the HPC community, and the different experiences of men and women in the field.

This will build on an earlier workshop at SC14, and it will also host a panel discussion, on the themes of how women can fulfil their dreams in HPC, combining work with having a family and working in a male-dominated environment. The workshop has issued a call for papers, aimed at female early-career researchers so they can present their work in a supportive environment that promotes their involvement in HPC research and applications, and provides opportunities for peer-to-peer networking, and to meet female role models.

This is the latest in several initiatives this year to promote the increased participation of women in high-performance computing. As Scientific Computing World described in its report Making women visible in scientific computing, the UK’s Genome Analysis Centre, based in Norwich, East Anglia, (TGAC) hosted a 'Women in Bioinformatics Day' in February, opening its doors to female high-school students in order to promote career opportunities in the bioinformatics field to talented young students, regardless of gender.

In the course of 2015, Prace, which coordinates the pan-European supercomputing infrastructure, is also promoting the role of women in scientific computing by publishing two magazines entirely dedicated to Women in high-performance computing, in cooperation with the organisation ‘Women in HPC’. The first edition will be published in the run-up to PRACEdays15 in May 2015 where a special satellite event with Women in HPC will be organised. The second one will be a special edition of the PRACE Digest to be distributed at SC15 in Austin in November.

In her article HPC is too important to be left to men published by Scientific Computing World in March, Alison Kennedy, executive director of the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) in Scotland, and a member of the board of directors of PRACE, discussed the role of Women in HPC an organisation set up in the UK in 2013 to support collaboration and networking, by bringing together female HPC scientists, researchers, developers, users, and technicians. However Kennedy warned of the dangers of the view that ‘it’s all about “sisters doing it for themselves” and that self-help is all that’s needed for women to play an increased role in the HPC industry. It’s not. A far more focused, integrated, and planned approach is needed.’

According to Kennedy, it is much more than just a numbers’ game and there is a need to understand the gender demographics of the HPC community. Even though they would prefer to stay in technical roles, she wrote, ‘several women have independently said that they felt pressured by male bosses to take up management roles in HPC because of women’s perceived superior “soft skills”. Similarly, women appear to be over-represented in areas such as user-support.’ Finally, she noted the anecdotal evidence that ‘it’s the men who get to do the more exciting advanced coding to implement new science and analysis, while the women do the duller but worthy running of the scripts and submission of jobs.’

On 25 and 26 May, just before the opening of the Prace Scientific and Industrial Conference in Dublin, there will be a ‘Hands on Introduction to HPC’ training session where all the training staff will be women.  The short course, which is offered in collaboration with the Women in HPC network, is open to everyone interested in using HPC, but it is particularly hoped that it will provide an opportunity for women to network and build collaborations as well as learning new skills for a career in HPC.