One female scientist on a team could be 'worse than none'

Number of women in high performance computing and science in general is worryingly low, says scholar who leads group for female academics in her field

April 12, 2016
Three female Lego characters
Source: Alamy

It may be worse to have one woman or man in an academic team dominated by the opposite sex than for all members to be of the same gender.

That was the scenario put forward by Toni Collis, applications consultant in high performance computing (HPC) research and industry at the University of Edinburgh’s Parallel Computing Centre, who said that research into a team working in a biology lab had shown that “diversity does improve scientific output”, but it was detrimental to have a token woman or man in a team dominated by the opposite sex.

Dr Collis, who is also founder and director of the Women in HPC group, made the comments during her presentation at the launch of University College London’s new computing facility, Grace, which will aid academics in computational research.

She said the evidence from biology showed "the worst team is when you have one man or woman in an all-other gender team". But this still did not preclude that "with a diverse team you'll have more scientific output, you'll have more innovation".

“For those of you who are applying for Horizon 2020 funding, you’ll realise there’s now a gender dimension in there. That’s because we’ve realised that by not having women on our research teams, we weren’t addressing questions towards women,” she said.

She said that at HPC conferences, the proportion of female attendees was worryingly low, at nine and 15 per cent respectively in the 2013 and 2015 Exascale Applications and Software Conferences – a major event for the HPC community. She added that of the more than 12,000 attendees of the annual Supercomputing (now known as SC) conference in the US, just 13 per cent of attendees were women.

In looking at the proportion of UK female academics in fields that are “core users” of HPC, Dr Collis said Higher Education Statistics Agency data showed the highest proportion was found in biological sciences – 45 per cent – while it dropped to as low as 17 per cent in physics and astronomy.

Dr Collis said that the issue of underrepresentation of women in HPC “does start at school”.

“We need to improve the image of a science and technology careers to girls,” she said. “We need to tell future people – men and women – about how exciting it is to work in HPC.

“We also have a history in the UK of having policies of naming buildings after famous alumni, staff, Nobel laureates. The problem there is when the processes in place decades ago...excluded women.” UCL’s new Grace HPC system is named in honour of computing science pioneer Grace Hopper. 

Among other recommendations, Dr Collis called on the HPC community to “challenge” conference organisers to “address gender equality”.

“A very brave step I’ve seen many colleagues take is to refuse an invitation to be a keynote if all the keynotes are white men. Sorry to white men in the audience, but you’re part of the problem,” she said.

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Reader's comments (1)

Headline states "One female scientist on a team could be 'worse than none", but article actually states "It may be worse to have one woman or man in an academic team dominated by the opposite sex than for all members to be of the same gender." If the headline had to be brief, why was it not "One male scientist on a team could be 'worse than none'"! Is this intentional or unintentional sexism?