POLITICS & INSTITUTIONS - ECONOMY

MeluXina manel sparks debate



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The LuxProvide team charged with the implementation of Luxembourg’s MeluXina supercomputer. Photo: LinkedIn screengrab 

LuxProvide, tasked with operating the national supercomputer MeluXina, posted an image of its team on social media last week, causing a flurry of comments related to its apparent lack of diversity. 

Users reflected on the lack of gender diversity in particular, including Luxinnovation CEO Sasha Baillie, who wrote on the LinkedIn post, “Great team that will become even greater with women on board too!”

It wasn’t only women who chimed in. Simone La Torre, managing partner of Elite Circle, was among those ready to step up to the lead-generation challenge, “to find the perfect women for the roles and to budget for salaries that are reasonable and attractive”, convinced he would be able to find at least 10 women “with the perfect background” in the domain to send in their CVs within 30 days. 

Some were quick to provide helpful tools--links to forums and articles on women in IT, for example. But others, notably on Twitter, commented on the lack of women in IT courses or surmised that the team had simply hired the most qualified people for the job. Following the original post, LuxProvide issued an apology. “It is true that our current team does not yet reflect any gender diversity and we still encourage women to apply and to join the team as we are still looking for more talents,” it said on LinkedIn. 

When asked about the team’s lack of diversity, LuxProvide CEO Pascal Bouvry told Delano, “We used a highly skilled headhunting company for finding the right candidates in the existing HPC centres. We succeeded to attract a key team of highly skilled engineers/specialists from all across Europe (and abroad) with 13 different nationalities and using English as the only language requirement. But with [less] than 10% of female applicants, in this team of engineers, we only succeeded to select one lady from Vietnam.”

Fellow CEO Roger Lampach confirmed the headhunting initiative, adding that to date, however, the woman expected to arrive from Vietnam still needs authorisation to work in Luxembourg. He added the team was “more than motivated” to improve its diversity, and that the organisation believes “pushing diversity in tech must be a common goal”.

In July 2019, LuxProvide was created as a 100% subsidiary of Luxconnect, which Lampach explains has a different balance in terms of gender. But Bouvry added, “The fact that we already have several ladies around (e.g., PR, website, HR, accounting) does not make me feel better.”

Bouvry explained that it is important to distinguish between people developing solutions versus those administering the system. “[I]t should be noted that establishing an HPC centre from scratch, selecting the supercomputer and installing it in a very short timeframe is an extremely challenging task and requires experienced individuals with a strong understanding of deep, technical subtleties. The initial team is therefore mostly composed of people that have been developing an HPC expertise for 10 years or more. Once the system is set up, the requirements become naturally less stringent, and we will be welcoming people with less or no prior HPC experience.”

Representation in the classroom, but not just... 

Bouvry is also a professor of computer science (CS) at the University of Luxembourg and in charge of its Master in Technopreneurship (MTECH) programme. So, what is the percentage of women in such courses? While the first class of the MTECH includes nine students--four of which are female--Bouvry explains that this line of study goes beyond IT, including other aspects such as business innovation. As for the other relevant programmes, there are 44% female students registered for the master’s in computer science, 16% for the CS academic bachelor, and 14.1% for the CS applied bachelor. 

“With my colleagues, we are working closely with the lycées [high schools] to try and attract more students and in particular female students to scientific studies,” he explained, referring to the Scienteens Lab as one such initiative. 

For some, however, getting better gender balance in such studies is only one part of the solution. 

“There’s no excuse not to have women on board,” said Jelena Zelenovic Matone--who serves as the European Investment Bank (EIB)’s senior head, operational risk, and chief information security officer (CISO).

Matone is also the president and founding member of Women Cyber Force, which aims to promote the role of women in ICT and cybersecurity and to tackle representation and pay grade imbalance in the field. 

Among the skill sets she says would be useful in HPC include IT engineering, computer sciences, AI and machine coding logic. Matone used the example of programming languages: in her own initial studies, she learned Java, C++, and others, even if she didn’t learn Python, a programming language she says is used in HPC. In her opinion, “Python is easier than C++,” but for her the bigger concern is giving women a chance. “I didn’t learn cybersecurity just in school. I learned by getting a chance.” A chance--plus hard work--which led to her being awarded CISO of the year in Luxembourg in 2019.  

While in her experience, there are indeed more men in HPC than women, she’s convinced women can be trained up. “[The] excuse should not be this, but to hire and teach them since they would pick it up in no time if [they are] already in high-tech roles,” she explained. “We should aim to hire and train more women... for the same reason as for cyber. We finish computer science, but if nobody gives us the chance in cyber, we will end up in project management or alike, so it’s ultimately about giving a chance and training women in this field.”

Larissa Best, founder of the Equilibre.lu platform which aims to support organisations in their diversity efforts, agreed that “while there are fewer women, percentage-wise, in IT than in other sectors”, nevertheless “there is no world in which an all-male team is justified.” 

At minimum, she added, “the board could have had women... But actually having none means that you are either too ignorant to look in the right places or too ‘old school’ to want women on the team. Either way, it just shows very poor judgment which is scary taking the importance of the project into account.”

Insult to injury? 

Less than a week after LuxProvide’s MeluXina team post, on 3 May the EuroHPC joint undertaking (EuroHPC JU) headquarters were officially inaugurated at the Technopolis Gasperich building in Cloche d’Or. Among the speakers were European commissioner for internal market, Thierry Breton; Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn (LSAP) and economy minister Franz Fayot (LSAP); executive director of the EuroHPC JU, Anders Dam Jensen; and chair of the EuroHPC governing board, Herbert Zeisel. 

Unveiling the commemorative plaque for the EuroHPC JU inauguration on 3 May, with Thierry Breton, Anders Dam Jensen, Dr Herbert Zeisel, Josephine Wood, Jean Asselborn, Franz Fayot. Photo: Video screengrab  

When it came time to take a photo, all five speakers gathered together around a commemorative plaque, joined by a woman who was not identified on the live stream (nor on the news brief, even as part of the caption, following the event and at the time of this publication). This was Josephine Wood, EuroHPC JU senior programme officer. Although not one of the official speakers, she could be heard making a comment picked up on the video feed about being in the photograph so there wouldn’t be only men in the photo.

On the heels of the MeluXina image backlash--and one day prior to the European Diversity Month launch event taking place on 4 May--this comment came as a surprise to some tuning in. 

When contacted by Delano, Wood explained, “I was meant to be there [in the photo]. I’m sorry the comment got picked up. I was asked to be there to show that we were a diverse team, which we are.”

She also stated that when it comes to diversity, “we are aware this is something we need to build on”, adding that the EuroHPC JU is a “diverse organisation, and we want to continue being a diverse organisation in the future when it comes to future recruitment to attract talent in HPC and quantum.”

EuroHPC JU initially launched a call in early 2019 for European hosting entities for supercomputers, later that year selecting five--including Luxembourg--for petascale systems. The MeluXina supercomputer--which EuroHPC and LuxProvide acquired from Atos in September 2020--cost €30.4m, two-thirds of which was funded by the Luxembourg state. The European Commission funded the other third, with 35% of the computing power to be made available to the 32 countries taking part in the EuroHPC joint venture.

Given that EuroHPC JU is a joint initiative which includes the EU--represented by the EU Commission, which has pushed its Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025--Delano asked the EU Commission’s local representation for comment on what measures, if any, are taken to ensure a fair representation of gender and diversity on such joint ventures. 

The EU Commission told Delano on Tuesday, “All EuroHPC supercomputers are procured in partnership with national hosting entities. Staffing is the responsibility of these hosting entities procuring the HPC and they therefore also manage recruitments. As for EuroHPC JU we are proud to say that the Joint Undertaking’s staff based in Luxembourg is gender balanced and will continue to promote diversity and gender balance in the future.”