AI, we have a sexism problem

Updated: Jun 6

I’m preparing for a talk about inclusion in AI and the need for more diversity in the field. While I was aware that the field of AI was hugely skewed towards men, I had no idea of the extent of it's misogynistic conference culture. In particular, one story about the battle to change the offensive name of a well established conference stood out as a symbol of bigger problems.

For decades, one of the leading global AI conferences went by the acronym “NIPS” which stood for Neural Information Processing Systems. If you were trying to be both sexist and racist at the same time, the term "NIPS" would meet your objectives. The conference ran for 30 years under this moniker and nobody saw the name as a problem, at least not enough of a problem to warrant change.

The fact that nobody THOUGHT this was a problem - that was the real problem - because the name of this conference was part of a much deeper issue.

An article in Nature documents the “frat-boy” culture that had become normalized at a number of high profile AI conferences. For years, women in the industry shared stories of unsafe, hostile environments when attending AI conferences. They traded tales about well respected academics known for making unwanted sexual advances and warned each other to steer clear. They formally reported misconduct and sexism to conference organizers. Eventually, the conference board at NIPS took action and a survey was developed to analyze the extent of the issues. They found that the problems extended beyond sexism.

Those who completed the survey also reported anti-Semitism, racism and ageism, as well as discrimination against straight men. “The environment at the conference is one in which many have experienced harassment, bullying, microaggressions, or lack of respect,” says the report.” (Nature)

Data scientist, Kristian Lum, wrote a blog post in late 2017 outlining her experiences of sexism and sexual harassment over the years working in this field. Anima Anandkumar, who at the time was an executive at Nvidia, started a petition which garnered thousands of signatures to #ProtestNIPS and demand that the conference change its name as part of facilitating a more inclusive environment.

However, the conference board’s initial reaction was push back, saying that after surveying their membership a suitable alternative name wasn’t emerging so they wouldn’t be changing the name at all.

It was clear that the priority was to appease the majority of their membership, not to address sexist connotations. Only when some members of the community, perhaps due to public embarrassment, started to refer to the conference as NeurIPS, did the conference board agree to formalize the name change.

The NIPS to NeurIPS story unfolded over the course of 2017 and 2018. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that part of the success in shifting the perspective at this conference was due in part to bigger changes in the cultural zeitgeist. This was around the same time as the #Metoo movement was gaining traction in 2017 with high profile cases such Harvey Weinstein. Would this change have happened without that level of solidarity in the culture at large? It’s hard to say. Changing the problematic name of a conference is a step in the right direction. Yet, while we can rebrand overnight, shifting attitudes that were decades in the making will likely take a long term, ongoing effort.

BTW - the website still exists and it is connected to the NeurIPS conference.

Check out my talk about inclusion at the CascadAI Responsible AI conference.

By Katrina Ingram, CEO, Ethically Aligned AI


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