To Attract More Women to HPC Careers, We Need to Tell the Full Story

Woman working in a computer room

By Marie-Christine Sawley, Ph.D; Director of the Intel Exascale Lab in Paris

This post first appeared on https://itpeernetwork.intel.com/ on 13 June 2016.

Technical professions still attract more men than women, and high performance computing (HPC) is no exception. Although there are growing numbers of women working in the diverse areas of HPC, women as a whole remain underrepresented. While this is situation that certainly has multiple roots, it is a problem that can and will be solved.

With that belief in mind, the HPC industry is working actively to encourage women and other underrepresented groups to pursue careers in the field. Part of this process is as simple as telling the HPC story to help people understand the rich rewards of contributing to advances in HPC.

For example, HPC helps drive our economy forward by enabling companies to bring better and safer products to market across a wide range of industries, from aeronautics and to automotive. HPC is responsible for advances in reliable power production and distribution, along with improved public safety through better weather forecasts and flood warnings. All the while, HPC shapes our view of the world by enabling scientists to explore the depths of space and the fundamental principles of matter.

The discoveries fueled by HPC have opened new perspectives for global societal issues, such as those revolving around urban development, the optimization of transportation systems, and the advent of personalized medicine. Examples like these illustrate that HPC truly has a positive impact on our day-to-day life—and this is a story we need to tell. I believe that if we are more vocal about the societal gains driven by HPC, we will see more young talent gravitating into the field, including women coming out of college.

At the 2016 ISC High Performance events in Frankfurt, June 19-23, I will join my colleagues in promoting and encouraging more women to consider careers in HPC. ISC, which is billed as the world’s oldest and Europe’s most important conference and networking event for the HPC community, offers an ideal forum to advance the numbers of women in HPC.

To that end, the conference will include the fourth international Women in High Performance Computing workshop, which brings together the HPC community to discuss the importance of improving diversity. This workshop will give participants a chance to recognize and discuss the challenges faced by women and other groups underrepresented in HPC, as well as current opportunities to broaden participation in HPC.

In addition, the conference will offer a Women in High Performance Computing BoF, which will focus on things employers can do to improve diversity. This event will include discussions on successful strategies implemented by employers and issues related to unconscious or implicit biases that can impact hiring and promotion. The speakers will share their insights into the tools available to the community to help address the current challenges.

The results of the BoF discussions will be used in the 2016 Women in HPC white paper, which will focus on improving diversity in recruitment. Where possible, the paper will attempt to quantify the value and benefit to the HPC community and employers of methods that can be used to improve workforce diversity.

Events like these are great for driving change from within the current HPC community. But we also need to reach out to high schools and colleges to tell the HPC story to bright young students. We need to mentor and counsel these students, and share our experiences in HPC. We need to make sure that talented students are exposed to HPC and understand the impact they can make in the field—whether it’s in a technical-, sales- or communication-oriented career. We need to help these young people recognize that when you work in high performance computing, you can have a very beneficial impact on the world we live in.

And not only that, if you have an acquired taste for pioneering work using advanced technology and leading to fast progress, you can have a lot of fun in HPC. After 25 years in the field, that’s a lesson I know well.

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  • Marie-Christine Sawley has been the Intel Director of the Exascale Lab in Paris since its opening at the end of 2010. Prior to this, she worked for 3 years as senior scientist for the ETH Zurich in the CMS computing team at CERN. Between 2003 and 2008, she was the director of the CSCS, the Swiss national supercomputing centre, boosting significantly the development of the centre during this period. During her career at EPFL, between 1988 and 2003, she managed a number of high profile HPC projects across a variety of disciplines. Over the last 20 years, she has built expertise as HPC technology manager to serve the advancements of world class science, mission critical computing, extreme sporting competition or industrial partnerships.

    Marie-Christine holds a degree in Physic and a PHD in Plasma Physics (1985) from EPFL. She spent two periods in Australia: for a postdoc at Sydney Uni in 1987-88 and for a sabbatical leave in 1999. Marie-Christine is a Swiss and French national.

     

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