Women in HPC and Compute Canada: a collaboration to build gender equality


Written by Dr. Toni Collis

Ada Lovelace is often quoted as being the ‘mother’ of modern computing, yet often when I attend HPC meeting and conferences I am one of only two or three women in the room. How did we go from Lovelace writing the first computer program, albeit in an era before women had the right to vote, to modern society where the right to employment and pay equality is recognized in law but yet in high performance computing (HPC) women may contribute to as little as 5% of the community?

Most countries, businesses and educational institutions now recognize that gender equality should exist, providing all with equal opportunities to participate in all activities and as a consequence improving a country’s GDP, a company’s profits, educational attainment and practices and research output.

While the principle of gender equity is generally accepted, in most, if not all, countries, we are a long way from achieving equality. Globally women make up approximately half of the world’s population but just 39% of the workforce [1].

Canada is leading the way in women’s employment: women comprise 48% of the total employees in the country. Despite this progress women are still concentrated in ‘traditional female occupations’ in Canada. These ‘traditional roles’ (teaching, nursing and related health occupations, clerical or other administrative positions, or sales and service occupations) employ 67% of all women in the country and yet only 31% of men. In addition, in 2008 women who worked full-time and all-year earned just 71% as much as their equivalently employed male counterparts [3].

So what about our field: high performance computing? How do we do compare to the national and international average for gender equality? Are we helping to overcome the low employment rate of women in non-traditional fields or improve the wage gap?

Our first challenge in understanding the representation of women in high performance computing is to define what it means to work in HPC. Do we look at computer science, or users of HPC facilities (often from the traditional ‘hard’ sciences but increasingly from social sciences and humanities), or do we just look at the teams of ‘system administrators’ who run the facilities? As an organisation, Women in HPC believes that we need to look at all of these groups, but that means that obtaining data on gender diversity in HPC is complicated: we can’t just look at the number of computer science graduates and call our work done!

Our initial investigation suggests that women comprise between 5 and 17% of the HPC workforce, depending on the precise field. This is where the collaboration between Compute Canada and Women in HPC is incredibly valuable.

In July this year, Compute Canada signed up to form the first Women in HPC Chapter, bringing together women in HPC in Canada. By working together we hope to understand where women are most likely to engage with HPC: not just how many people use Compute Canada’s resources, but how likely women are to engage in conferences and training in HPC compared to men; are women more concentrated in one particular aspect of the HPC community than another and what can we learn from this? The collaboration between Compute Canada and WHPC will enable best practise in Canada to be shared with the rest of the international community as well as encouraging women from Canada to stand on the international stage.

We hope that the collaboration between Compute Canada and WHPC will help us build a picture of the HPC community and provide information that we can use to broaden participation across the entire HPC spectrum, in Canada and beyond, open more opportunities for women and provide inspiring role models that will encourage future generations to participate, irrespective of their gender. In addition to sharing information on the demographics of the HPC community in Canada, Compute Canada’s WHPC chapter will provide training for women in HPC as well as networking events, all with the aim of providing women with the network that men implicitly have in a male dominated community.

Toni CollisToni Collis is the founder of the Women in HPC initiative which aims to address the underrepresentation of Women in HPC around the world, by identifying how women contribute to the community, disseminating best practise for improve equality and diversity and running events to bring women together, provide opportunities for women to showcase their work and provide a platform for inspiring role models.

If you would like to find out more about the activities organized by Women in HPC sign up for the WHPC newsletter at: www.womeninhpc.org.uk/get-involved.

[1] UN Women; Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment; http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/economic-empowerment/facts-and-figures; Access date 2 October 2015.

[2] Urquiko, Covadonga Robles and Milan, Anne; Female Population, Statistics Canada; http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-503-x/2010001/article/11475-eng.htm; Access date 2 October 2015.

[3] Cool, Julie; Employment and labour: Wage Gap Between Women and Men (2010-30E); Parliament of Canada; 29 July 2010; http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublications/2010-30-e.htm; Access date 2 October 2015.

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