Women and High Performance Computing, more than just Hidden Figures

Victoria Maclennan
February 15, 2017

I went to the movie Hidden Figures last week, a lovely story distilling complex issues of a time – primarily racism and chauvinism – on a backdrop of high technology and NASA’s quest to beat the Russians into space (and onto the Moon) enabling them to look past their prejudice and judge this fabulous group of women on the merits of their work. The title is of course a double entendre – women as an uncelebrated resource hidden from view in the “colored section” at NASA; and the advanced complex mathematical and physics calculations used to determine flight path trajectories and reentry coordinates.
Sitting in my comfy movie seat it was easy to dismiss these complex issues as another era – yet on reflection while some things have changed
others have stayed the same – prompting this post on the role Women have played in High Performance Computing / High Tech and will continue to play into the future if we can attract women back into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
Tiny segue first however – next week I will be speaking at Multicore World presenting “Why we are still failing to attract, retain and keep women in STEM? with a view to sharing how everyone can participate in this process. Multicore world is the ultimate High Performance Computing (HPC) conference, held here in my home town (which is awesome) bringing together Scientists, Engineers,
Mathematicians and Technologists who are all leveraging HPC to solve complex problems. On the agenda are talks from world leaders in Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, SuperComputers, Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and Big Data along with Scientific projects enabled by the calculation capabilities HPC provide.

Women in the History of High Performance Computing and High Technology

Like the story of the three main protagonists from Hidden Figures – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan – stories of women previously overlooked or written out of High Tech history have been emerging in recent years. It’s not worthy debating why this happened now, instead we should be celebrating those we know about. This Walter Isaacson quote nicely summarises the challenge we currently face in STEM:

“When [women] have been written out of the history, [girls] don’t have great role models. But when you learn about the women who programmed ENIAC or Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace … it happened to my daughter. She read about all these people when she was in high school, and she became a math and computer science geek.”
-Walter Isaacson

There are many women who have been (and continue to be) pioneers in the High Tech world. Dame Stephanie Shirley for example is an interesting role model both as a woman in business and a women in technology. Until the Sex Discrimination Act (1975 UK) she exclusively employed women as programmers, embracing their collaborative styles, enabling flexible working conditions and built a highly successful software business in the process.
The women in Hidden Figures taught themselves to programme “the IBM” HPC in Fortran securing their future roles in Aerospace once human computers (as they were known) were retired. In our unknown future of work Artificial Intelligence, BioTechnology, Nanotechnology, Robotics and other High Tech skills will be in demand so it is as important as ever we a growing and development capability in this space.
Here is a list of articles with names and stories of women in the history of STEM worthy further investigation:

Celebrating the Women in your workplace – they should not be Hidden Figures
One of the keys to success in attracting women into STEM careers is (as Walter Isaacson said) to create role models for girls. I would take this one step further and say we need role models for women as well so those returning to the workforce or looking to retrain see attractive and stimulating opportunities they can achieve.
It seems fitting at this point to showcase the women of OptimalBI – not Hidden Figures at all. I encourage everyone who reads this post to showcase fabulous women in their workplace, encourage them to write blogs and papers, contribute to technology community discussions, open source projects, enter awards and in short encourage them to stand up and be seen as a role model for others. Enjoy. Vic.

Anastasia Gorbatenko – known at OptimalBI as “Professor Anastasia”, Data Warehouse developer and analyst, Anastasia recently joined us moving to sunny Wellington from stunning Auckland. You can read Anastasia’s blog on her “Way to the world of New Zealand IT” here.

Kate Loguteva “Data Masseuse” – contributor to Open Source projects, AgileBI developer of our own Open Source Data Vault codebase ODE.
You can read Kate’s “What is Data Vault” blog here.

Sarah Habershon “Raconteur” – our Data Visualisation specialist and budding Data Scientist, contributor to Creative Commons and other fabulous initiatives.
You can see Sarah’s Earthquake Visualisation here, and her Attrition in the Justice System visualisation here.

Rachel MacLennan our own “Figures Fairy” – financial guru for OptimalBI, OptimalPeople and other wonderful companies.
You can read Rachel’s blogs over at OptimalPeople here.

Melanie Butler “Data Navigator” – Data Scientist, Analytical Modeller, Data Wrangler, Report Designer, Teacher and Coach are just a few things on Mel’s list of skills. Recently Melanie has been blogging on T-skills, building teams and more you can read here.

Sarah Dobie “The Tea Drinking Programmer” – Computer Science student and builder of API’s, Sarah studies, tutors and works part-time! busy.
You can read Sarah’s “Getting Started with API’s” blog here.

Bronnie Scott “Organises Events and Flies Planes” also known as “Princess of Parties” Bronnie organises things around here, manages contracts and works with customers on resourcing.
Bronnie has just completed her Prince 2 Certification, you can read about that here.

Finally there is me, Victoria MacLennan with the demure title of Managing Director. If you want to learn more about me head over to OptimalHQ.com or read this nifty Who Is it Wellington interview.

We love to share which includes teaching others awesome methods and techniques – check out our Data Driven Requirements, AgileBI and Data Vault training offerings over here.

Victoria spends much of her time focusing on Digital Inclusion, Digital Literacy and Digital Rights.  

You can read her OptimalBI blogs here, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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