« Thinking You do You, and I do Me »

I have been wanting to write a post about being a woman in ML for as long as a year. I wrote a draft once but I was not completely satisfied with it so I ended up saving it somewhere and forgetting about it. What brought me back to this subject was the recent debate in machine learning around NeurIPS (a conference I attended in December) and the several voices that have risen to talk about the environment for women in ML.

One of these voices belongs to Anima Anandkumar, director of research at Nvidia and professor at Caltech. When the board of NeurIPS initially announced that the original name and acronyms (Neural Information Processing Systems and NIPS) were to be kept in the absence of a consensus on a new name within the community, Prof. Anandkumar became one of the leaders of the #ProtestNIPS movement. This movement asked the board to reconsider and change the name because the acronym was too often the subject of sexist jokes and changing it would be a clear signal that the community takes inclusion seriously and wants to improve the environment. I personally supported this movement as much as I could, by signing the online petition started by Prof. Anandkumar and by advocating for the name change around me.

What really made me lose my nerves during this debate were the reasons brought forward in favor of keeping the name, as well as the pressure that some were trying to put on Prof. Anandkumar. She released on Twitter some of the messages and emails she got, basically telling her that she was a trouble maker and that she was almost destroying the field by advocating this small change. The arguments made by proponents of the original name were that the poll ran by the board showed that most people wanted to keep the name and that the people who found it offensive should just grow up. In the midst of the debate, Prof. Anandkumar and others wrote this paper and presented it during one of the workshops associated with NeurIPS. The paper explains why the former acronym needed to change: namely, because of the jokes, the obvious sexual connotations (try searching for NIPS on any search engine), and perhaps most importantly, because many women asked for it to change. It also points out that the survey results were not representative of the community.

Another debate involving Prof. Anandkumar occurred recently. The discussion revolved around content moderation on Facebook. Prof. Anandkumar had initially started a discussion with Yann Le Cun to ask why Facebook removed Dana Moshkovitz’ post relating the sexual harassment she experienced working with a prominent researcher in the field. I believe that Prof. Le Cun did not immediately reply. A bit later, he posted a comment on his Kardashian index on Facebook and Twitter. This comment entailed other comments, among which some referred to the sextape involving Kim Kardashian. Prof. Anandkumar called this out and asked Prof. Le Cun to moderate comments on the thread he started for the sake of inclusion in ML. Here is some of the initial conversation: 


Once again, some people sent messages and emails to Prof. Anandkumar because they disagreed with the way she addressed Prof. Le Cun. 


The discussion did not really lead anywhere, both sides chose to disengage rather than continue to argue for their positions. Here is one way to see this: content moderation on social media should not lead to censorship. In other words, the jokes are of a poor taste but they are just jokes, get over it. Now here is another way to see it: when we have serious claims against a prominent researcher of harassing the women around him, we are told that we cannot talk about them publicly; however, when men make sexual jokes about conference names and celebrities, we are told that this is okay and we should grow a thicker skin. Context is everything.

All of this is why I decided to write this post today. Because I too was told that I was « sensitive »  and defensive, and it was explained to all the ways I was wrong and unreasonable. But guess what? I do not think that this has made my skin grow thicker with time, I think it has actually become thinner.

I have been working with machine learning researchers for about 7 years. Before that, I studied in a computer science engineering school in France. All in all, I have been in a largely male-dominated environment for the past 12 years. Here are some of the things I have experienced during these 12 years:

  • When we started computer science, during an introductory class when we were setting up our accounts in one of the computer labs, a female friend of mine told me that the professor basically showed her how to use a mouse, assuming that she did not know anything about computers. What an amazing way to be welcomed to the field.

  • One of my colleagues told me one time that he and another colleague thought I was on my period because I was being hostile to them. Let us be clear, periods or not, if you are being a pain, I will be hostile.

  • One evening I was out at dinner with only male colleagues. We had pizza. All of us ate a full pizza. Then, they ordered another half pizza (I did not). Then, they all ordered tiramisu for dessert and so did I. When I placed my dessert order, one of my colleagues turned to me and said something like « wow, you’re really enjoying yourself tonight! ». I was a bit shocked and I did not know what to answer so I mumbled « I don’t really put on weight easily so… ». He answered « well, wait until you’re 30, hahaha » They all laughed. I felt shamed by this comment, like I needed to be taught how to feed myself, like I was expected to eat salad and smile because this is what is expected from a woman. Well, I am 30 now and guess what, my feeding habits are still nobody’s business!

  • I have been told three times now that I was invited to speak at a panel because the organizers needed diversity. One of my colleagues told me-like it was the most natural thing in the world: « I suggested you because you are female ». Always feels great.

  • I was presenting a poster at a conference and I presented it to a male student. We kept talking (about research, shall I specify) for a bit. After our conversation, my colleagues smiled and said « that guy was definitely flirting with you ». I guess my poster (and the research behind it) was a big piece of crap. In the same vein, my male colleagues were discussing a conference where a poster presenter was a woman and she was apparently quite attractive. They then said that all the men and even the big names in the field went to her poster, leaving no doubt that the reason for this large crowd was her attractiveness. I guess her poster was a big piece of crap too.

  • Speaking of conferences, do you know how many times when I am with male colleagues, they see other researchers (male or female) and those other researchers come and shake hands and speak while, the whole time, I remain this invisible unacknowledged person to the side? This happens so often. Maybe it is just me but I was taught at least to shake hands with everybody. Conferences can be a really tough time for me, because the feeling of exclusion is at its peak.

  • One time I started a research project, found the relevant literature, and proposed ideas for the solution. The project was taken over by colleagues who completely excluded me from any meetings and discussions. As a result, the paper was written without me. Other times, I was part of initial discussions around research projects and, even though I believe I made contributions, afterwards, I was only consulted rarely and most important conversations happened without me, within the very exclusive boys club in which I still do not have membership. 

Many times when I talked about these anecdotes, I was told (mostly by men) « I wouldn’t have taken it badly », « I don’t see what’s the problem here ». Rings a bell? Yes, this is exactly what Prof. Anandkumar is constantly told. This is what we are all constantly told. In the beginning, I used to reconsider and think for a minute, « okay, maybe I’m being too sensitive here ». Well, after 12 years of « not too bad, minor » experiences, I just cannot keep taking it. If somebody tells me « I wouldn’t have taken it badly », I just want to yell at them « Effing good for you! Let me go get you a medal for being most reasonable person of the year! ». Another thing I am told is that maybe some of these things would have happened even if I were a man, these are not women-specific incidents. In this post, I tried to list things that are quite clearly women-related (periods, diet, flirting), and things that other women have also told me they experience (the boys club). I will let the reader draw their own conclusions on this.

Even though these stories seem small, and I did not spend too much time thinking about them individually, it is because they repeat themselves and accumulate that I feel so worn down. I intentionally left out the context for most of the anecdotes because my goal here is not to point fingers; most of these things did not happen because people are terrible but because sexism is systemic. We all need to reflect on our behavior. I am sure that I have acted and spoken in a sexist way sometimes, and I apologize for it. I am trying to improve. Most of the people involved in these stories are friends and, I believe, good people. Yet if anybody—friend or not—asks me to be on a panel because of my gender one more time, I might just burst into tears in front of them. I am genuinely tired. I think about leaving the field every other month. 

I am sharing this today because I would like to urge everybody to try to understand the women in the field who are speaking up and explaining why things need to change. What seems to be the smallest change for you is actually a big deal for us, it is that one light of hope that might convince us to stay and focus on what we love: on research and engineering. People laughed at our ask to change the NIPS name, but I hope that after reading this, some will understand why it was important.

Other voices I need to mention before I close this post are Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, both researchers at Google AI. They have been speaking up, acting for greater inclusion in the community, and being role models for me and others. I titled this post after a song by J. Cole named Neighbors. In this song, he explains that when he went to college, he just wanted to be left alone to focus on his art, « thinking you do you, and I do me ». Of course, unfortunately, he was not left alone — he dealt constantly with systemic racism. This was pretty much the state of mind I had when I chose to study CS and then ML. I came to learn about the world of machine learning and its incredible applications. I never thought I would feel like I did not belong, like people only talked to me to flirt or because they needed a diversity speaker. I never thought I would be shamed and laughed at. I just want to be left alone and not to have to hear these things anymore.

Yes, sometimes we will seem aggressive when we speak up, but hopefully now you understand why. All of us have countless stories and I do believe that skin only goes thinner with time. You can deal with a few things and be okay but when almost everyday, a sentence or an action makes you feel bad about yourself, there comes a time when any new incident is just too much, no matter how small, how unintentional. What women in ML need right now is benevolence and understanding. We are not saying that men are terrible and insensitive, we are asking for small changes, we are trying to raise awareness of our weariness. 

Layla El Asri