The power of diversity to drive innovation

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Women take centre stage at Compute Canada conference

A lack of skilled workers is the biggest challenge facing high performance computing globally. Compute Canada is responding with a national effort to recruit more women to a sector that has become critical to our country’s innovation and competitiveness.

This effort was on full display at this year’s CANHEIT | Compute Canada High Performance Computing Symposium in Edmonton. A record number of women attended the June 19-22 event, which featured several speakers and sessions on how companies and academic institutions can test their unconscious biases, improve their hiring practices and improve their engagement with women and other diverse groups.

“This is the first conference, since HPSC started 29 years ago, that has had such a strong focus on women,” says Kelly Nolan, Compute Canada’s Executive Director, External Affairs and advisory board member for Women in HPC. “It’s not just because it’s 2016. This isn’t a field that wants to exclude women. They are looking for best practices that allow them to recruit in a different way and make their work environment more welcoming to women.”

In its early days, HPC was driven primarily by physics, traditionally male-dominate disciplines. But today, HPC is essential to a virtually all disciplines, from advanced manufacturing and life sciences to environmental monitoring and communications. Nolan says companies need the creativity of a diverse workforce to push the limits of the technology to solve societal problems.

“Women go into HPC for different reasons than men. They are interested in solving problems,” says Nolan. “I heard from one woman who said she was a mathematician and computing specialist because she wanted to figure out a better way to provide real-time health monitoring for preemies. Another went into mathematics and is using HPC to solve crime and make cities safer.”

The symposium also featured the June 19 launch of the Canadian chapter of Women in HPC at a special reception that included lightning talks from four inspirational women working in HPC. Compute Canada is the first international partner to join WHPC, a British organization that aims to increase the representation of women in advanced research computing through fellowships, education, mentorship and support.

Compute Canada’s first action will be to work with WHPC to understand why women are underrepresented and create activities in training and outreach specific to this issue. Compute Canada will also assess its own practices to support diversity.

Globally, women are under-represented in HPC and information and communications technologies in general, despite young women doing at least as well in mathematics at school as young men. At the same time, Canada economic growth depends on the availability of good scientific and technical talent.

“Addressing the gender balance will not only make our organizations and companies stronger, it will also strengthen Canada’s economic growth,” said Mark Dietrich, President and CEO of Compute Canada. “WHPC has done exceptional work to identify best practices for recruiting and retaining a female workforce, and providing an international network for women in the HPC community. Discussions are already underway to adapt these successful strategies in Canada.”

 

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