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Supporting Women in HPC

A smiling woman under blue and orange hues. The background is circuitry, also in Blue and orange hues.

NCSA has long supported women in High-Performance Computing (HPC).  To that end, the Center served as  an academic sponsor of the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) in Orlando and sent team members from several areas to this year’s conference.

Named after famed computer scientist Grace Hopper and organized by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, GHC was created in 1994 by and for women computer scientists. What started small eventually grew, with thousands attending each year. Workshops, career sessions and speakers fill the schedule, all focused on promoting and celebrating women in computing. This year’s NCSA representatives were tasked with bringing back ideas and inspiration on how to better support women in HPC.

Recruiting for the Future

Amanda Rawls is NCSA’s director of Human Resources. Her goal in attending Grace Hopper was to help build a more inclusive workforce. That means understanding what the Center can do to become a more attractive place for potential employees, especially those from underrepresented groups, like women. “Generation Zoom (otherwise known as Gen Z) requires employers and premier institutes such as NCSA to not only communicate our mission and vision but develop a well-thought-out plan on how we will utilize and leverage their generation’s talent in our organization,” Rawls said.

The maturity level and technical competence of this generation demand that our leadership continue to get out of the historical comfort zones and remain open to a multi-generational approach in order to attract and retain top talent.

Amanda Rawls, director of Human Resources, NCSA

Inclusivity is a relatively modern concept, and those who’ve grown up knowing about the importance of inclusion in the workforce are especially savvy at finding organizations that champion diversity. Creating a model for inclusivity when it comes to hiring will ensure the Center continues to attract the best talent, regardless of their backgrounds, something Rawls learned at the conference. “While the 1960s was before my time, similar to young adults in the 1960s, generation Zoom continues to demand inclusivity in the way of gender, gender identification and ethnic diversity.”

NCSA had a mini booth at Grace hopper. This picture shows the mini booth, with some stickers and handouts for visitors.
NCSA’s mini booth at the Grace Hopper conference. Photo Credit: Sophie Bui

Rawls learned a few tips on how to help recruit in ways that remain attractive to a diverse pool of applicants. One tip, in particular, she hopes to incorporate when the center sends HR staff to large tech conferences to look for talent. “Many companies used a hybrid approach,” she explained, “where they not only came to the career fair with open positions, they conducted on-site interviews to help expedite the interview process. This is something I believe NCSA can review and ‘tweak’ to capture top talent and stay compliant with the University’s recruitment templated process.”

Not everything Rawls attended was focused on recruiting. She also took the opportunity to learn about some areas outside of her role at NCSA in the hopes of bringing back knowledge that would be useful for the Center. “ [NCSA Director] Bill Gropp has been clear that we should continue to make decisions based on data.  I had the opportunity to attend a workshop that focused on data-based decisions when it comes to inclusivity in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine).

The workshop Rawls attended was titled Advancing Antiracism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEMM Organizations Beyond Broadening Participation, and Rawls happily brought back the related study in the hope it will be useful to the organization. “Some of the Study Sponsors are the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Science Foundation and seven other organizations. I plan to dig into the study and connect with the presenter to assist with our Culture/Engagement Survey follow-up work.”

Much like the other NCSA attendees, Rawls also personally enjoyed her time at Grace Hopper. “I had an excellent experience,” she said. “As a first-generation Gen X college graduate, it is enlightening to see the growth, confidence and tireless advocates that many of the women and non-binary women display from Generation Zoom.  As a second-generation college student, my daughter displays similar qualities. The conference gave me additional respect for not only the growth potential but also how many are ‘activists’ for change while balancing coursework and achieving academic excellence. This generation seems to be keenly aware of their ‘worth’ and own it.”

Inspiration for Support

The entrance to the Grace Hopper Conference, "The way forward" is printed on the stairs leading up to the conference.
The grand entrance to the Grace Hopper conference. Photo credit: Sophie Bui

For Sophie Bui, NCSA’s community manager for software and digital agriculture, attending the conference helped fulfill a personal passion. When she began working for NCSA, she found support and friendship in Women@NCSA, a group founded by NCSA’s director of the Advanced Visualization Lab, Kalina Borkiewicz. Starting as a member of the group, Bui now leads it, helping bring speakers and workshops to NCSA specifically geared toward uplifting those in marginalized and underrecognized communities. Attending Grace Hopper was almost an extension of Bui’s leadership role in Women@NCSA.

“The Grace Hopper Conference was an enlightening and empowering experience,” Bui said. “The sessions I attended were a good balance between personal growth, professional development and listening to the amazing things people are doing to make their organizations and STEM more diverse, equitable and inclusive.”

Bui’s work with Women@NCSA had already given her ample opportunities to explore ways she could support women in tech, but a conference of GHC’s magnitude offers a way to connect with so many that it’s hard not to walk away without learning something new. “What I learned at GHC further enables me to approach everything I do with more empathy because our actions, even if they seem small, matter,” Bui said. “The conference exposed me to experiences, stories and challenges that I hadn’t thought of or encountered before. These newer perspectives have given me ideas and topics that will help expand Women@NCSA’s offerings.”

Sophie Bui

I left [Grace Hopper] feeling energized and inspired to do more. It also made me feel good about what we’re doing at Women@NCSA and hopeful for what we are going to do in the future.

–Sophie Bui, community manager, NCSA

Some of the things Bui learned at the conference were more personal. “I really enjoyed learning about the difference between a mentor and sponsor in the ‘Making the Most of your 1:1s with your Manager’ session with Annika Peterson. She delved into the importance of building relationships at work and how to identify and interact with each person appropriately. My takeaway from this talk is that it’s great to be open and honest with yourself and the people around you, but you need to be mindful of oversharing and set healthy boundaries to thrive.”

When asked about specific speakers she might like to bring to NCSA, Bui had a list already in mind. “I attended a panel titled ‘Succeeding Through Unapologetic Authenticity’ featuring four Black women engineers – Cameron Jackson, Tara Ellis, Janan Barge and MoJen Jenkins – from Netflix. This panel discussion was centered around the importance of recognizing and lifting up what makes you different to succeed.”

Like all the attendees from NCSA, Bui had a great overall experience at Grace Hopper. “Attending GHC was an experience unlike any other. I’m in awe of the efforts put in to pull off this event that focuses on providing educational, professional, equitable, life-changing opportunities to thousands of women and non-binary technologists. ”

An Ally in Administration

Theo Long, NCSA’s associate director for Administration, attended Grace Hopper this year based on his desire to support women in tech. He went as an ally, one of the ways men can meaningfully participate in GHC and its mission. “I attended the conference hoping to just sit back, listen, and really absorb information in order to be a better ally,” Long said. From the get-go, he realized his role would be even more important this year.

“In the opening plenary, Cullen White,’s chief impact officer, came out and addressed the crowd with some upsetting news that men misgendered themselves as non-binary in order to attend the job fair,” Long explained. “Cullen appropriately told the men to basically back off and respect the women and non-binary attendees.” But Theo took advantage of this upsetting news to help put himself in the shoes of women. “Right off the bat, I had to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable as I sat alongside nearly 17,000 women and non-binary tech professionals. It hit me then and there that my privilege has enabled me to have very few of these uncomfortable experiences and that I had better focus on just listening so that I could see, hear, experience and feel what it’s like to be marginalized, afraid, hurt and more.”

I now know that in my leadership role, I must listen, learn, amplify and advocate.

–Theo Long, associate director for administration, NCSA

Theo Long

Long took this opportunity to immerse himself in this feeling so he’d have a better understanding of what it was like for women in tech. “I now know that in my leadership role, I must listen, learn, amplify and advocate.  It’s easy for me to go about my day as me, not thinking about how someone else might view a communication piece, a policy or even a word that could impact our staff.”

“I don’t want to be a performative ally,” he said, “where I just say that I’m an ally.  I now know that I need to be actively working on myself, and more importantly, I need to speak up when I see or hear something that isn’t appropriate.  My privilege gives me the opportunity to support and advocate for others with less privilege in order to make the right changes at NCSA, and I can’t forget that as I move forward.”

Long learned a great deal from the workshops and presentations he attended. Prior to attending, he was aware of the issue of wage gaps, but sitting through a number of presentations, he learned more about the breadth and depth of the problem. “For example, even if a woman starts off at the same level of pay as a male counterpart with the same title,” he said, “in three to five years, that woman’s male colleague will have a higher title and higher pay even though their performance was the same.”

A scene from one of the sessions at Grace Hopper. the picture is taken from the audience's perspective.
One of the sessions at Grace Hopper. Photo credit: Sophie Bui

Something profound hit him when he heard some of these statistics. “While there was intense support for women in tech at the conference, I knew that most of the attendees would have to return to their workplaces to face these challenges and that I wouldn’t have to face similar challenges.” He described feeling uncomfortable by these realizations but was glad for the discomfort. “Being uncomfortable is more than okay because then it may help with being more empathetic.”

Long said he had a tremendously positive experience at the conference and was enthusiastic about attending such a large gathering of IT professionals. “I was completely amazed, if not overwhelmed, by the number of people at the conference. I think in the opening plenary, they said 17,000 would be in the room, and 30,000 attendees would attend the conference that week. It was so great to feel the energy of everyone in attendance, and everyone I interacted with made me feel so welcome… [W]hile standing in line [for sessions], I ended up meeting some amazing women and non-binary tech professionals from all over the world. It was nice to see so many people invested in learning, making an impact, and being open-minded…I would encourage any of our male staff to consider attending this conference as an ally.”

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