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Pursuing diversity in every facet of HPC

Kelly Gaither. Image courtesy TACC.

Kelly Gaither, co-principal investigator on the Extreme Science and Discovery Environment (XSEDE) project and director of visualization at Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), offers further thoughts on the topic of gender diversity following our 28 January article 'Why aren't there more women in HPC?' by Toni Collis.

My history in computational science began with my love of animals. I wanted to study pre-veterinary medicine at Texas A&M in the US, but was drawn to computer science, particularly the ability to solve puzzles using computers. While at A&M, I attended an undergraduate seminar given by a computer science professor. He was looking for volunteers to work on a recently funded project, and I volunteered. He saw something in me - to this day I still don't fully understand - and that was the beginning of what was to become my career in high-performance computing (HPC).

Since then I have often been the only woman in the room.

That's why, as the director of visualization at TACC and a co-principal investigator on the XSEDE project, I have been passionate about spotlighting the need to include women and other underrepresented minorities in HPC. At TACC, we have made a focused effort to engage forgotten groups in K-12 STEM programs. At XSEDE, our training, education and outreach, and senior management teams are providing opportunities for those previously excluded to have a greater chance at impact in the HPC world.

As Toni Collis describes, I too have experienced gender bias. While the landscape is improving, bias inserts itself in unintended ways. I rarely experience explicit acts of bias these days, but I am frequently reminded that we still have so much work to do to level the playing field. This is why we are choosing to address these issues head on in XSEDE. We provide opportunities for leadership and participation in the working team itself, and for students to take part in a broad variety of programs. XSEDE also makes a significant effort to gather data and track metrics, ensuring that we can quantify impact.

I am passionate about increasing the diversity of gender, race, ethnic, and educational background in the HPC community. I see HPC as an enabler for tackling some of society's most challenging issues, and without thought leaders from a diverse set of backgrounds, we are providing an incomplete story. For HPC to become truly pervasive, we must understand how to engage and include thinkers, innovators, developers, students, and practitioners from a representative sample of the population.

However, the problem is a difficult one to solve, which is why we see only incremental improvements. There is certainly merit in providing forums for any underrepresented community to get together and share experiences. There is merit in providing role models, someone to look up to and aspire to be. But they in no way tackle the real problems. To address the issues at the root of inequity, we must focus on diversity in every facet of HPC and we must engage our future HPC leaders early on in their education.

To that end, I have worked directly with our education and outreach group at TACC, helping shape our strategy around the key areas of filling and sustaining the pipeline, as well as advocating for HPC to the lay public. Our programs are centered on five tenets:

  • Encouraging life-long learning
  • Providing persistent positive presence
  • Providing and capitalizing on opportunities
  • Addressing 'the why'
  • Tracking our success

As a result, we have seen real impact in the Hispanic and African-American communities in Austin, which also happen to include many women.

To make a lasting difference, however, we must begin to think about tackling diversity and bias directly. We must address the fact that we lose children very early on in the education pipeline. While we have made great strides to include women and underrepresented minorities in HPC, we must realize it is still a very real issue that Toni Collis, future HPC leaders, and I need to put our heads together to solve.

Do you have an idea how to solve this problem? Tell us what's being done at your research organization to address gender inequality in the comments section below.

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