NIPS 2017 should have been a decisive win for fairness both within our community and the communities impacted by it. Black in AI had a tremendous debut, Women in Machine Learning continues to be a torch bearer for professional growth and mentorship, Kate Crawford keynoted The Trouble with Bias, and the Fairness in ML tutorial was filled to the brim, both in audience size as well as practical advice.
We should first thank and congratulate all those who dedicated their time and energy to such great events. Many went above and beyond to ensure these issues are well understood and that these communities were well supported, to the cost of their own time and sanity.
Sadly however these wins aren't the end of the story.
Across broader society a toxic battle is playing out, with many in our community caught in the crossfire. There are issues that we as a community do not have the immediate power to change. What is within our immediate power to change however is how we interact with and support those groups within our conferences and across our community.
Note: Whilst this post has a focus on NIPS 2017, this is in no way an attack on the overall event or organizers. Conference organizers, like the organizers above, put their time and effort into a task of terrifying enormity and for that they have my sincere thanks. As the largest of our professional conferences, NIPS has a chance to lead and resolve issues both at their conference and the wider community.
Is a risky joke or grimace inducing example worth potentially making someone feel unwelcome and/or wrecking the conference or community for another attendee? Would the removal of that joke or example in any way limit the purpose of the conference or community - building connections to share knowledge?
Avoid these jokes. At best, they add little. At worst, they destroy a lot.
Remember that this is an international event and an international community. Not everyone speaks English fluently. Not everyone has the same monoculture. They should all feel welcome. They all bring value.
Everyone within our community has ideas and insights worth hearing. Everyone is worth speaking to. It shouldn't be necessary to note that we're all human beings but it's worth re-iterating just in case.
Let me pause for a moment and speak only to readers who are also male: as a male researcher, have you ever pondered adding "Researcher" to your name tag in the hopes more people would discuss technical work with you at a technical conference? Anecdotally that crossed at least one female researcher's mind. If considering that is even necessary, we've failed them, and we're all losing out because of it.
Globally, both in tech and other fields, the #MeToo movement has helped bring to the forefront the oft ignored violations of fairness and equality in academia and industry. These remain a problem within our field and a problem that even post-Weinstein men seem to underestimate.
70% of female founders say sexual harassment in tech is still underreported vs. 35% of male founders. Men were 4 times more likely than women to say the media's overblown the issue. https://t.co/ndNAIYP66W— First Round (@firstround) December 7, 2017
Some technical conferences have had a Code of Conduct in place for many years, such as PyCon's. Others have recently been added after existing incidents and assaults came to light. Regardless, the default conference should now have a Code of Conduct. We've seen the costs come too high for those without one. A Code of Conduct sets community expectations and ensures that, should an incident occur, there are steps in place to properly handle them.
A conference's Code of Conduct is only as strong as the enforcement of it however. Much of the PyCon Code of Conduct is discussing the channels to raise and resolve incidents as well as the procedures and responsibilities of the staff. Not having these in place before an incident will not end well.
Talented researchers and practitioners were denied visas simply due to travel bans against their home countries. Even of those countries not explicitly banned, the Black in AI team had to fight against bureaucracy and idiocy to support the visas of many from outside of the country.
Many never made it. We should all be angry at the loss for them and ourselves for not being enriched.
Stories of visas being held for weeks at an embassy, candidates being unable to get physical US dollars to pay visa application fees, or the US government fearful that the participant wouldn't return to their country even when they had a family back home. There is no silver bullet to solve this problem but we can take steps. Improving policies regarding absent presenters, ensuring our conferences remain in a welcoming country, and supporting the groups that fight to ensure attendance by our broader disadvantaged community are all part of it.
#blackinai @ #NIPS2017 was incredible. I can't stop thinking about one man telepresenting from Ethiopia whose wifi just wasn't giving us audio. He would raise his voice to be heard, awaking sleeping neighbors, and still we couldn't quite make it out. What are solutions?— MMitchell (@mmitchell_ai) December 10, 2017
When Black in AI was announced, there was backlash from a subset of the community on Twitter. Luckily members of the community stepped in to help defend and share the purpose of the group.
All of our voices are important here. Those of us who are part of our minority groups or communities should know they have allies and that their knowledge, insights, and perspective are welcomed and valued. Those of us with privilege / not in underrepresented groups should empower others. Together we can make the community as a whole richer.
Childcare is nowhere near a trivial task but should be something that we as a community work towards.
That a conference as large and well funded as #NIPS2017 doesn't have day care is a travesty. Imagine if companies spent even a tiny portion of their party budget on sponsored day care? :(— Smerity (@Smerity) December 8, 2017
I would highly recommend reading more of the discussion within that thread. Some issues I was idiotically blind to (such as complications regarding caring for children who might not have English as a first language) but I refuse to believe that a community that solves hard problems continuously couldn't solve these given time, thought, and a few of those sponsor dollars.
Honestly, I'm not the right person to talk about any of this in detail. What I simply want to say is that this is a community issue. It won't be solved by one champion, no matter how brilliant they might be. We all need to play a part in shifting our attitudes and behaviour.
Thanks to those who have read and helped refine this post through their feedback and expertise. I truly appreciate your constructive criticism and reflections! If you have insights to give, feel free to contact me - I'd love to hear them :)
Interested in saying hi? ^_^