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Improving diversity at HPC conferences and events

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  • Introduction
  • Broadening participation
    • Step 1: Understand your starting point
    • Step 2: Set your goals
    • Step 3: Appoint your committee and a Diversity Chair
    • Step 4: Be prepared to lead
    • Step 5: Publicly acknowledge your target
    • Step 6: Benchmark
    • Step 7: Attract attendees
    • Step 8: Monitor, evaluate, and disseminate
    • The next steps
  • Useful information
    • Enhancing your attendee’s experience
    • Accommodating special requirements
    • Collecting demographics
  • Further information
  • Feedback


It is generally recognised that attending and actively participating in conferences is important for career progression, building networks that enable future collaborations, and raising your international profile  improves an individuals’ career and opportunities for advancement and collaboration. To that end, High Performance Computing (HPC) conferences have a key role to play in broadening participation of under-represented groups in HPC, providing these individuals with the opportunity to advance their careers, and hopefully improve retention.

In the UK, women comprise just 17% of IT professionals, and in the US 25% of the computing workforce. More concerning still is that women who do enter a career in STEM demonstrate an incredibly high attrition rate. A study by the Center for Work-Life Policy reveals that 56% of technical women leave at the ‘mid-level’ point of their careers[1]. A study by Law Professor Mary Ann Mason at the University of California, Berkeley found that male and female postdocs were equally likely to leave research careers at a rate of 20%. However, when females became parents or planned to become parents, the rate at which female postdocs left research doubled compared to their male colleagues in similar circumstances[2]. Of the women who leave the technology sector, nearly half continue to use their technology skills in sectors outside the STEM disciplines[1].

Fostering engagement with the broader community by improving the experience of conference attendees is just one way to improve overall retention of the workforce. The benefits, while aimed at diversifying the workforce, may have far greater reach by encouraging men to also stay engaged in a sector that is rapidly expanding and struggling to recruit and retain a large enough workforce for the future.

This guide aims to provide simple key steps that conferences can take to help broaden participation and thereby help conferences impact the community and provide positive change. 

Broadening Participation

Step 1: Understanding your starting point

When you set out to improve diversity at your conference you first need to know where you are starting from and, therefore, how you will improve. Try and find out:

  • Identify which aspects of attendee diversity you are interested in improving. For example:
    • Gender balance
    • Ethnicity
    • Other under-represented minorities
    • Early career attendees
    • “International” attendance (outside the conference’s host country).
    • Disability
    • Participating institutions (e.g. academic, industry, laboratories, small, medium or large organisations).
  • Assess the current status of your conference. This doesn’t necessarily need to be publishable scientific data, but you do need to understand your starting baseline. For the demographic(s) you have chosen to concentrate on, find out if this has been monitored in previous instances of your conference series, or at similar conferences. If not, can you re-purpose existing data to reveal the information you are looking for (for example, an analysis of first names can provide statistical indications of the gender of attendees). These data are principally used to guide goal formation, so while we encourage you to be as accurate as possible, it is not essential at this stage to be completely accurate.
  • Assess how accurately your conference reflects the community it serves? E.g. if your conference is in the field of HPC and you are considering whether you need to improve the representation of women, then find out how many women are working in HPC or related fields. These data can be hard to discover, but several HPC centres have published their demographics; you could also ask HPC Centres how many women use their facilities, and what proportion of their staff are female. Also some conferences are beginning to publish their demographics (for example, SC16) and these can be used for direct comparison.

Step 2: Set your goals

Use the information you gathered in step 1 to set goals. You may want to consider ensuring that the demographics of your invited speakers represents those in your community, or go somewhat further and aim for something closer to demographics as represented in society. Be careful to be realistic: for example setting a goal of 50% female authors on submitted papers when your community is only 10% women may be likely to fail, though not in all situations. Goals should stretch your team but be achievable so that you remain encouraged. Reassess your goals on a regular basis.

Step 3: Appoint your committee and a Diversity Chair

Choose your committee wisely! We all know the importance of a strong and dedicated committee –running a conference is time consuming, and is often an additional task to the committee’s regular work responsibilities. When things get busy the things that are not essential get forgotten or pushed to the bottom of the list. Appointing a Diversity Chair whose primary responsibility is focusing on the goals you established and raising diversity issues that may be associated with other aspects of the conference is key in retaining the focus needed to actually reach the goals agreed.

Improving diversity is often challenging and can create uncomfortable discussions. It is important that your committee is fully on board with your goals and your reasons for looking at diversity as an aspect of the conference organisation. As your committee will often need to think outside their comfort zone (e.g. when identifying a broader group of keynote speakers than would usually be invited) and discuss new ideas, having them engaged in the topic is essential for your goals to be achieved.

Step 4: Be prepared to lead

Creating a more inclusive conference is an opportunity for leadership! Communicate early with your committee and other stakeholders about why you’ve set these goals, and frame that discussion in terms of your community and the long term health of your conference. Each of us is starting from a different place that is informed by our own life experiences, so don’t expect that everyone on your committee will “get it” at the same time. As you engage with the group or individually, listen to the kinds of questions your team is asking, and try to understand what is motivating each question. It is important to remember that what may at first appear to be a hostile question is really just the result of a misunderstanding that results from a difference in experience or perspectives. Expect to revisit this discussion many times in the course of your conference planning sessions. Some people may never be fully convinced, and that can be a completely workable situation, but beware of retaining committee members that are actively undermining your diversity goals.

Cultural change can be a long and sometimes frustrating process, but if you believe in the goals you’ve set for your conference, then put in the effort: it will pay off in the long run.

Step 5: Publicly acknowledge your target

By announcing your goals and the appointment of a Diversity Chair you are publicly committing to your goals. Positive action/discrimination should be avoided (in the UK, positive discrimination is unlawful), therefore ensure that your announcement makes it clear that these are goals rather than “must-meet” targets.

Step 6: Benchmark

Progress is best made if you know your starting point. Therefore collect demographic information relevant to your goals on the conference. This may include:

  • Gender/ethnicity/country of origin of attendees
  • Gender/ethnicity/country of origin of authors, including those accepted/rejected and the presenting author
  • Gender/ethnicity/country of origin of committee

Be aware that the process for collecting this information needs to be put in place before you call for papers, presentations and participation, or you’ll spend much more time (and expense) trying to capture this information after the fact.

Step 7: Attract attendees

How you attract attendees is crucial to diversifying your event, particularly if you determined in Step 1 that you are under-represented compared to your expected broader community.

Steps you can take to encourage a broader diversity of attendance include:

  • Provide a diverse range of keynote presenters, so that your target attendee community can see themselves reflected in the conference program.
  • If you aren’t reaching particular groups, perhaps where you advertise should be evaluated. The ‘same-old’ mailing lists clearly attract the type of attendees that already participate; seek out new groups, publications, etc. to which you can advertise.
  • Minimise the use of jargon. Your advertisement should not be challenging to read or understand! Attendees will come to the event to learn, so filling an advert full of jargon that only seasoned attendees will understand should be avoided. Jargon also often implicitly sends the signal that “outsiders” are not welcome. If you are trying to attract attendees that don’t usually come to your event, that is a signal to be avoided.
  • Evaluate the language in your advertisement for signals that your event is not supportive of diverse groups. For example, are you providing information about social events that might exclude certain groups (e.g. focusing on how everyone has a beer every evening of the event may cause anyone who doesn’t drink or prefers not to socialise over drinks to reconsider participating)
  • Make sure you make it clear what activities you are doing to improve the attendee experience (see below).

Step 8: Monitor, evaluate and disseminate

It is important that you follow through with your plan and that you are transparent about what worked, and what didn’t. Monitor the demographics of your audience over time, and provide a critical evaluation of any measures you have implemented and whether they have worked (remember sometimes improvements may take several years to appear). Plan to share what you find with the broader community. You may also wish to consider instruments that can help you evaluate more qualitative questions such as: whether attendees enjoyed the event; whether they consider attending in the future; whether the event meet their expectations (and if not, why not?). It is also important to provide an opportunity in a survey like this for attendees to expose any negative experiences they may have had. Just remember the old curse: “may you get what you wish for.” It is unlikely that all of your attendees and other stakeholders will agree that your diversity goals are the right goals, that you have implemented them in the right way, or even that you should be addressing these goals at all. Be prepared for positive and negative feedback, and give genuine consideration to any feedback you get.

To help you get started check out the resources available from NCWIT[3].

The next steps

  • Share your data
  • Partner your conference with Women in HPC, or another orgnanisation relevant to your diversity goals (see www.womeninhpc.org for more details)
  • Provide an early career track and mentoring to help address retention
  • Encourage all to attend and return
  • Share what you find – what works and what doesn’t? Do a post event survey that assesses if there was a gender difference in expectations and enjoyment and address concerns of attendees

Useful information:

Enhancing your attendee’s experience

There are always extra steps you can take to enhance the attendee experience, attract a broader range of individuals, and encourage attendees to return in future years. Some ideas to consider include:

  • Provide childcare. Childcare can include subsidised or free, but any form of childcare helps attendees with limited arrangements at home to attend
  • Provide free access to the event for caregivers accompanying the attendee so that childcare exchanges can happen in the conference venue
  • Provide a parents’ room with comfortable seating, a fridge, and microwave and a private area for nursing.
  • Consider providing travel support or free passes for those from particular groups that you wish to encourage. Note that in some countries/regions this may be considered positive action or positive discrimination and therefore this option needs to be considered in light of local laws.
  • Consider security and welfare. Provide transport between evening venues, or help to organise groups for walking between accommodation and events.
  • Provide a prayer or meditation room.

Accommodating special requirements

For advice on accommodating the requirements of your attendees, including those with disabilities and from under-represented groups see the ARCHER guide to ‘Improving accessibility to HPC Training’ http://www.hpc-diversity.ac.uk/best-practice-guide/best-practice-guide-training.

Best practices in collecting demographics for your event

Collecting demographics of your committee, attendees and authors needs to be done sensitively. Remember:

  • Ask someone to provide demographics information rather than making assumptions. It is often tempting to fill out this information on behalf of others as it can be an uncomfortable subject to discuss. However, as demographic choices can be more complex than many of us realise, it is important to provide individuals with the opportunity to determine their desired response themselves.
  • In order to respect individual privacy it is best to not require an answer, but experience tells us that many people will simply ignore optional questions even when they aren’t opposed to providing the information being requested. One way to both encourage responses and respect privacy is to make each question mandatory and provide a ‘prefer not to say’ option in the possible responses.
  • Explain why you are asking these questions, and ensure that people know the information will be treated sensitively and that it will not be used for screening purposes.
  • Remove the demographic information from submissions and data shared with anyone beyond the committee members that are responsible for collecting this information. It is particularly important that this information is not passed to reviewers or sponsors who may be given the attendees list.
  • All reporting should be of anonymous aggregate statistics, including to your committee. If any demographic has fewer than 5 responses it should not be individually reported, other than as ‘<5’.
  • Stereotype threat is a situational predicament whereby individuals feel themselves at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. When individuals are reminded that they belong to a stereotypical group it can affect their performance. It is a best practice to minimize stereotype threat by asking for demographic and other sensitive information at the end of any form submission .
  • Ensure you allow people all of the options available. Remember that there may be many more alternatives than you haven’t thought of. An example would be to ensure there are always four options in the normally ‘binary’ gender question:
    • Please select your gender
      • Female
      • Male
      • Other
      • Prefer not to specify

Further information

This guide has been developed by the team that runs training for the UK National HPC facility, ARCHER (www.archer.ac.uk). We aim to share our experiences and the best practise we have learned over many years of teaching and lecturing, but we are not experts in the field. We therefore encourage you to make full use of any local resources you may have available and all times ensure that you abide by any local legislation (in particular in the UK, the Equality Act 2010).


If you would like to provide any input to this guide, provide feedback on how useful the material was or suggest additions we would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact us here.

[1] Ashcraft, C., Mclain, B., & Eger, E. (2016). WOMEN IN TECH : THE FACTS 2016 UPDATE // See what’s changed and what hasn’t. Retrieved from https://www.ncwit.org/sites/default/files/resources/womenintech_facts_fullreport_05132016.pdf

[2] Goulden, M., Mason, M. A., & Frasch, K. (2011). Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science638(1), 141–162. http://doi.org/10.1177/0002716211416925

[3] https://www.ncwit.org/resources/evaluation-tools-1#Attendees

Last updated: 28 Jun 2017 at 12:46