Labor Snapshot: Engaging Women and Diverse Talent is Now Imperative for High Performance Computing Sectors

About the Author

Kelly Nolan serves on the SC18 Inclusivity Committee and is the co-founder of and a seasoned expert in strategic affairs and gender equity. Previously, she worked with Compute Canada where she led the strategy to secure commitments for more than $100 million in government funding.

Limiting Growth

When you examine the STEM disciplines that produce HPC experts, unconscious bias and the lack of engagement of women is playing a major role in limiting the growth of the talent pool for both industry and higher education institutes.

Kelly Nolan

An extensive study, by Hyperion Research for the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010, confirmed that the HPC community has only begun to address this job candidate shortage through new curricular and internship offerings as well as through accelerated on-the-job training, but not much has changed since the study was tabled.


Market Snapshot

HPCwire highlighted the issue in an article last June while covering the ISC conference. Hyperion Research reported between 2000 and 2016, the HPC market doubled in size from about $11 billion to $22.4 billion—creating the need for many new employees in the process. Nearly all (93%) of the HPC centers said it is “somewhat hard” or “very hard” to hire staff with the requisite skills. It is especially telling that the majority of the centers (56%) fell into the “very hard” category.

They report the most fruitful source of qualified candidates for HPC positions are university graduates in mathematics, engineering, or the physical sciences and a smaller, but substantial percentage are from computer science.

“There is currently a shortage of a skilled STEM workforce in Europe, and it is projected that the gap between available jobs and suitable candidates will grow very wide beyond 2020 if nothing is done about it,” said Martin Meuer, the general co-chair of ISC17, at their first ever STEM student day.

When you look at mathematics, engineering, physics, and computer science disciplines intake data the problem is somewhat clearer. The U.S. Office of the Chief Economist tabled a report last March, called STEM Jobs: 2017 Update and it states women make up approximately 30% of all STEM degree holders and these women are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation.

Despite a growing body of evidence that diverse teams improve performance and increase profits a summary of peer-reviewed research, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, published in 2010 by the American Association of University Women (AAUW),” and more recently, the National Academies Report “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” both cite unconscious bias and discrimination as the root cause for the lack of women in STEM disciplines.GG

And studies show that members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, various religious and ethnic groups are experiencing the impacts of unconscious bias and exclusion at higher rates than white women. This untapped talent pool in STEM disciplines is choking the development of HPC experts at a time when opportunities are exploding.

Diversity demographics for HPC experts in industry are limited, but technology organizations show similar experiences for women (not specifically HPC).


More Specifics

Currently, women makeup only 27% of the workforce in the Canadian communications and technology industries and women leave these industries at an alarming rate. The report, “Closing the Gender Gap: A Blueprint for Women’s Leadership in the Digital Economy“, says that 56% of women leave the ICT industry mid-career. They recommend focusing on improving workplace culture for women and blind recruitment strategies to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace.

“Overcoming the impact of unconscious bias takes a strong commitment to change. Leaders need to make it a key priority in order to create a workplace culture that is inclusive. Investing in people management and training is fundamental and essential to success,” says Kim Stephens, former lead of diversity and inclusion training at IBM and co-founder of


Awareness is Growing and Things May Be Improving

Dr. Lesley Shannon, an engineering professor at Simon Fraser University, used different language to describe computer engineering and it helped deliver results. “We needed to use more inclusive language. When I describe engineering I say that we use existing math and science knowledge to try to solve challenging problems and create solutions that help people and society, as opposed to saying, I sit at my desk all day and write code. Simply changing how we were describing computer engineering increased our numbers of women from 9% to 19%.”

Lorna Rivera, Research Scientist in Program Evaluation at the Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC) conducted an evaluation for the the International HPC Summer School to examine why few females applied to the program and, of those who did apply, why so few were selected compared to men. Rivera discovered that men and women presented themselves differently during the review process.

Rivera helped the group revise its application process, and in the next training program there was not significant gender bias in applicant rankings. While this required some effort to survey and review the program, the solutions were not costly and produced impressive results in a short timeframe.


Women in HPC and Diversity

Women in HPC and the UK based HPC Diversity Project are examples of some newer initiatives focusing on diversity and inclusion that are specific to HPC. Both the ISC and SC also have active diversity and inclusion committees.

Women in HPC founder, Dr. Toni Collis works to create opportunities for early career women and creates programs that help them integrate into the HPC community at ISC and SC and other major HPC events. This helps create a platform for early career women that is improving inclusion and recognition of their expertise.

She promotes implementing blind recruitment strategies and improving job descriptions as best practices for academia and industry. Collis suggests listing what is actually required for the job. “Do they really need a PhD in physics? Or is the ability to learn new programming languages and adapt solutions more essential?”

While these efforts are promising, leaders are lasered focus is on keeping up with the evolution of the technology.

“For both industry and academic/research careers, the need to stay current is synonymous with staying relevant and employed in HPC. In an industry that is constantly transforming there leaves little time for leaders to focus on broad aspects talent management,” says Dr. Broude Geva. “There are limited budgets for professional development and they are usually applied to technical training, not staff management and people skills.”

While progress is slow, global industry giants like IBM, Intel and others are actively addressing the issue. They all have specific business operations focused on developing and retaining a diverse workforce as a key business strategy. At IBM, there is a long history of supporting diversity and there are specific global programs for more than 10 under-represented groups including women and LGBTQ+. Intel’s Global Diversity and Inclusion program focuses on building a workforce as diverse as their customer base.

Offering a variety of workplace environments can also be a great retention strategy. Higher learning HPC centres may have an edge for employing women in HPC over industry says Broude Geva, Director of Advanced Research Computing at the University of Michigan. The shorter chain of command, better work life balance and variety can be attractive options in academia. “You often become an essential member of a research team, and you get to work on a plethora of problems and solutions across many disciplines. The variety is attractive when compared to the more monolithic path in industry.”

And while a variety of flexible work environments is good for diversity and retention we need to understand and work to improve the workplace experience of women in STEM and under-represented groups to meet our talent requirements in HPC.

In order to build the talent pool necessary to fully integrate the potential of HPC across industries and sectors, we need to focus on building a talent pool of diverse skills. This was highlighted at the SC17 plenary panel on the Century of the City, moderated by Argonne’s Charlie Catlett, discussed an increasing role for HPC in cities, with perspectives from city government, planning and design, and embedded urban HPC systems.

One of the key success indicators the panelists focused on learning to collaborate and build close working relationships with city officials, and improving understanding of the challenges this sector was experiencing and how HPC could improve how we experience city life. These types of challenges will attract a broader community of interest and will challenge the HPC community to be as flexible and adaptable to people and diversity as it is with technology.

For more information on SC18’s inclusivity initiatives: SC18 Inclusivity