SIAM News Blog

A Perspective on Diversity and Inclusion in Computing

By Elizabeth Bautista

When I first began my current career 20 years ago, I was both a minority and the only female on a team of eight male staff members. As a recent graduate with knowledge of the then-new Linux operating system entering an environment that had relied upon Solaris for years, my skills were dismissed by colleagues who often told me that I really did not know Unix. As much as I tried to convince them otherwise—that Linux is like Unix and my skills were transferable—my coworkers treated me as if I had no experience. While I had not previously worked in a high-performance computing (HPC) environment, I had prior experience as a system administrator in a distributed setting. Within three months I had learned Solaris and was outperforming my peers, creating innovative processes and updating standard operating procedures throughout the data center. A year later, I overheard the team leader tell a colleague that he was happy he was able to teach me in a short amount of time. I felt marginalized that he was claiming ownership of my accomplishments and minimizing my efforts.

As a Filipino woman in a male-dominated industry, I had no role models at the lab, at other National Laboratories, or even in the media. Present demographics of HPC facilities in National Laboratories will likely find no Filipino women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas. I often wondered if all Filipinas were nurses, accountants, or caregivers, rather than scientists. I felt isolated in STEM; aside from human resources staff, I had no one to consult about career trajectories or navigation of the National Laboratory system. As the only female in a shared 24/7 space, I experienced implicit bias that made me doubt myself and question the appropriateness of assertion when stating my needs. For example, I was teased for working hard when I asked staff members to move a conversation elsewhere so that I could concentrate in my workspace. They had no idea that I always had to work harder to prove myself and the value of my efforts in pursuit of a level of recognition comparable to their own. How else was I going to get ahead?

Elizabeth Bautista (far right) shares ideas on notifications for environmental data with colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Photo courtesy of City College of San Francisco Career Services.
I am currently part of a management team of 12, and while the team is 50 percent female I am the only minority female. A 2014 study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology indicates that while women make up 26 percent of the computing workforce, Asian women specifically comprise only five percent (there was no demographic specifically for Filipino women, so they were likely incorporated in the Asian category). A 2014 Google study of the diversity gap in Silicon Valley reported that women account for only 18 percent of the tech industry. While the field has seen progress over the last two decades, situations have become more complex. Given the statistics, are things really any different now than when I was beginning my career?

To answer that question, we must first define diversity. Merriam-Webster defines diversity as both “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements,” and “the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” In the workplace, creation of a diverse and inclusive environment must be more than an organization’s mission statement, more than words on a strategic plan, and more than a yearly requirement of 40 hours of diversity-related activities.

While I believe that many organizations have workforce diversity, such an atmosphere does not automatically translate into an inclusive culture. Cultivating inclusivity can be straightforward: change hiring processes, vary recruitment tactics, widen the candidate pool, alter interview procedures, modify the definition of minimum qualifications, etc. Diversity implementation begins with a hiring manager’s commitment to cast a wide net that includes as many people as possible—especially from unlikely sources—and hire the best candidate regardless of his/her demographic.

Inclusion is an important aspect of an organization’s culture. It is implicit in a company’s operation, the managers’ daily practices, and the staff’s individuality — all guided by an overarching set of core values aligned with an institution’s mission. Being inclusionary is the conscious decision to accept and respect other people’s differences and take action to nurture an equal experience for everyone. It is not treating everybody the same way, but rather creating an environment where everyone experiences equal treatment. Inclusion can be as simple as remembering to bring a gluten-free pastry for a staff member with Celiac disease when purchasing donuts for colleagues. Conversely, it can be as difficult as advocating for your female minority employee by not allowing your senior privileged-class leadership to interrupt her or ignore her contributions. A 2014 Business Insider article entitled “13 Subtle Ways Women Are Treated Differently At Work” states that “if women are assertive, it can be seen as aggressive…whatever women do at work, they have to do it nicely.” In my experience, this continues to hold true.

Elizabeth Bautista in the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center's data center. Photo courtesy of City College of San Francisco Career Services.
Inclusion is having the maturity to engage in professional communication. Conversations can include admitting your need for an explanation when something is unclear. For example, at one point I did not understand the difference between vegan and vegetarian. So I asked a vegan co-worker to explain it to me. Now I recognize that food “choices” are not simply a choice, but rather an informed effort to minimize health or environmental impacts. This information subsequently helps me make thoughtful selections when my group shares a meal. Positive exchanges like this one, which incorporate patience and an open mind, can lead to much clearer work-related interactions. For example, allowing non-native English speaking employees to take their time when describing the advantages of an out-of-the-box solution—rather than requesting that they limit their explanation to five minutes—will give those employees confidence that they are being heard.

In my opinion, more resources are available today than ever before to help improve diversity in the workplace. Companies hire specific individuals—like diversity program managers, for example—to focus on diversity efforts. Staff members can volunteer to participate in programs like unconscious bias training or diversity education. Organizations create and maintain employee resource groups or implement policies surrounding supplier diversity. Employees can also watch a six-step inclusion video and partake in accompanying facilitator-based discussions. Those who complete such trainings are recognized for their initiatives.

In spite of these advancements, we still have a long way to go. From a manager’s standpoint, diversity and inclusion training should be a periodic requirement, like ergonomics refreshers that occur every two to three years. Companies cannot assume that promoting someone to the managerial level automatically provides them with the necessary skills to foster a diverse and inclusive environment for staff. Yet managers are supposed to be liable for their own actions, as well as those of their direct reports. To maintain accountability and ultimately become better allies, they must speak up upon witnessing discrimination, bias, or microaggression in a psychologically-safe environment. These skill sets do not come naturally; they require practice and must be integrated into an organization’s culture. Only then will every employee be capable of recognizing personal biases, commit to an awareness of things that trigger such behaviors, and work to maintain a safe space in which to address them. For example, when an employee asks a male colleague clarifying questions about a female coworker’s presentation, other colleagues should be able to quickly point out this prejudice without confrontation.

Ultimately, while we can treat diversity like a checkbox item, promoting inclusivity and practicing accountability are important to diversify the workforce and ensure that we are all allies. Inclusion and accountability separate organizations that practice these behaviors for compliance from those that work to truly create environments in which staff can thrive.

Elizabeth Bautista is manager of the Operations Technology Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. She advocates for women and minorities to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and supports practical, hands-on training as part of the next generation of professional education. 
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