Practical tips for building a better workforce through diversity

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Women in HPC: CANHEIT | HPCS 2016

An urgent skills shortage in high-performance computing and information technology combined with a massive shift in workforce demographics is impacting how corporations and institutions recruit. Techniques that focus on Aboriginal peoples, women and the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community were among the recruitment strategies discussed at this year’s CANHEIT | HPCS 2016 in Edmonton.

The June 20 panel, Building a Better Workforce, featured best practices in diversity and inclusion that are being developed to overcome unconscious biases that discourage under-represented groups from considering careers in IT and HPC. One of the leaders on this front has been IBM, a company that believes when diversity is incorporated into the business, better innovations and outcomes result. Research has shown that diversity not only makes companies more competitive and profitable, it also results in better research.

For IBM Canada, one key area of commitment is to expand participation of Aboriginal peoples in the technology sector. Certified by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business as a Progressive Aboriginal Relations company, IBM leads with its investment in an Aboriginal engagement strategy.

A Chartered Accountant with degrees in commerce and native studies, Mary Jane Loustel heads up IBM Canada’s Aboriginal Strategy.  When Loustel joined IBM in 2007 she had limited background in technology, however she had worked extensively with post-secondary institutions on strategic, financial and operational planning. 

As a descendent of the Metis of the Red River Settlement in Manitoba, she was also acutely aware of the gaps that exist for Aboriginal participation in many facets of society, including access to education and opportunities for employment.  After establishing herself as a business professional, Loustel returned to university to complete a Master’s degree in native studies.

“I grew up very aware of differences that Aboriginal people faced and I wanted to understand why this was the experience and what I could do to help increase Aboriginal participation and success.”

She recognized the difference a company like IBM could make to address gaps in inclusion and was quick to accept its offer to lead a National Aboriginal Strategy built on a foundation of partnership and collaboration. The aim was to advance Aboriginal participation in the technology sector by addressing four key areas of interest: employment, procurement and business development, community relations, and community investment.

Loustel said they identified two main challenges to increased Aboriginal employment in the technology sector: too few Aboriginal youth were advancing into the post-secondary pipeline and IBM’s traditional recruitment channels for post-secondary were not specifically focused to reach those Aboriginal students that were in the field of study. The company realized it needed to increase its focus on Aboriginal youth engagement, skills development and community relations. It also recognized the importance of collaborating with post-secondary education in this outreach.

“We needed to partner with university and business in our effort to increase capacity and demonstrate to youth that they could learn with hands-on experience and to think about careers that could bring solutions back to their communities,” said Loustel. 

One example of IBM’s investment in this area is the IGNITE Camp, a technology camp designed to benefit those who teach and those who learn in Aboriginal communities across Canada. IGNITE stands for “IGNiting Interest in Technology and Engineering” and was launched as part of the strategy to inspire Aboriginal youth to stay in school and to promote interest in science, technology, engineering and math.  For IBM the camp is a foundational component to the overall goal to increase Aboriginal community access to technologies and solutions.

IBM also participates in the Indspire Soaring Career Conferences and the Aboriginal Human Resource Council Inclusion Works Conference, which provide opportunities for youth to explore a broad range of career possibilities.

Loustel’s advice to other companies and institutions: “understand how you are doing in areas where you hope to build engagement and inclusion and be honest about how you need to change your systems.”

IBM’s efforts to use diversity to drive innovation also extend to the LGBT community. Kimberley Messer, who serves as the Canadian Co-Chair of IBM’s LGBT Business Resource Group, explained how in 2006, IBM laid out a new charter for a company-wide Diversity 3.0 strategy to help safeguard the continued viability and growth of IBM. A hallmark of IBM’s strategy is the Self-identification program. Launched in 2006 and now available in 36 countries, the program enables employees to self-identify on a voluntary basis as LGBT, aboriginal, persons with a disability, member of a visible minority or veteran and to participate in networking, leadership and mentoring opportunities.

“This has become a valuable tool for us to understand our global workforce,” said Messer, currently a North America Business Development Executive at IBM Canada. “It helps us determine if our policies are inclusive and if our employees feel they can be themselves at work.”

IBM also sponsors an annual workplace conference in the United States called Out and Equal, which works closely with Fortune 500 companies to implement policies and programs that promote a safe and supportive workplace for LGBT employees.

Changing the language of IT

Many of the biggest recruiting efforts these days focus on attracting and retaining more women to IT and HPC. But as Lorna Rivera discovered, accomplishing this goal takes more than good intentions.

Rivera, a newly appointed researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, collaborates with Women in HPC to better understand why too few women choose careers in this sector, and to help employers use this knowledge to dramatically reduce the gender bias from the hiring process. For example, she was asked by the International Summer School on HPC Challenges in Computational Sciences to examine why few females applied to the program and, of those who did apply, why so few were selected compared to men.

“They found that men rated higher than women in the application process and they asked me to fix this. They didn’t know where to begin,” said Rivera, who is also a member of the Women in HPC advisory board.

Rivera discovered that men and women presented themselves differently during the review process. When participants were asked to self-rate their level of abilities in HPC tools and techniques, men consistently scored themselves higher. But when the question was reworded to ask how much time they spent on specific tasks, women and men rated themselves equally.

Rivera helped the group revise its application process and when the next training program was held in Toronto in 2016, there was no significant gender bias in applicant rankings.

Attracting more women to careers in HPC starts with attracting and retaining more women in university computer engineering programs, where currently more than 90% of students across Canadian universities are men. Lesley Shannon, the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (BC/Yukon) at Simon Fraser University, recounted how one time their Engineering Science School had all of the women from a first year class switch out of the program in second year.

“That’s statistically significant—potentially a quarter of the women in our program at a given time—and and we didn’t want it to happen again,” said Dr. Shannon. “What we found was that the women in that first year class had failed to connect with their peers and were very isolated. We had a welcome/mentoring event during frosh week; but SFU also had classes at that time, so often our new female students couldn’t attend our event and meet each other and the more senior students.”

The solution was to create a frosh day for women in the engineering program the day before frosh week began. This helped the women joining the program to feel more connected to each other and resulted in more predictable retention numbers.

Dr. Shannon also uses different language to talk to describe computer engineering to the general engineering cohort in their first year. “We needed to use more inclusive language,” she told delegates. “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 from 9% to 19%.”

“This is the stereotype that we’re fighting and it’s universal,” added Dr. Shannon. “It is important to think about how we talk to parents, teachers and children about computer engineering. Children start deciding what they are not going to study at nine years old … Talking about what you do and why you love it in an inclusive way really matters.”

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