The NIPS Conference Decided Not to Change its Name - What’s at Stake?

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, in 2017 women only held 26 percent of jobs in the computing workforce. Given how grossly underrepresented women are in STEM careers, I applaud any effort by the community to improve diversity and inclusion.

A recent example of this involves the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS), one of the biggest annual AI conferences in the world that has, rightfully so, come under fire recently for issues of insensitivity and jokes made about sexual assault at its conference. In response to a letter to the NIPS board from Johns Hopkins University professors and students calling for a name change because of the offensive connotation for women, NIPS issued a poll to its community. They sought to garner feedback and make a decision on whether or not the conference should be renamed.

I was disheartened to learn earlier this week that after revealing the results of the community poll, NIPS decided not to change its name. I took some time to reflect on what it is that bothered me so much about the decision...

It has been well-documented throughout the industry that there are far fewer women in STEM careers, like AI, than there are men.

Initiatives like that of Melinda Gates’ Reboot Representation Tech Coalition and NIPS’ decision to appoint Inclusion and Diversity chairs to its board, are steps in the right direction to make tech more inclusive. However, leaving the NIPS conference name as-is offsets the hard work the industry is putting in to change the world’s perception of the tech industry and encourage young women to consider STEM and AI careers.

I also couldn’t help but shake my head at the way in which NIPS analyzed and considered the poll data it collected. The poll captured the opinions of 294 women who attended the conference in the last five years, and 24 percent of those were women attendees in 2017. Not to mention, only 17 percent of the total 2017 attendees were women in the first place. Ironically, not even NIPS’ poll adequately represented the opinions of the group it is in jeopardy of offending. With NIPS’ decision to keep its name, I wouldn’t blame women for feeling marginalized and alienated in a field in which they are already the minority.

It is disappointing that one of the AI field’s most important conferences seems to be tone deaf and will maintain a name that is offensive to women in the native language the conference is held in. However, I have not lost hope, and I’m happy the conversation started in the first place. I encourage NIPS to not close the door on this topic completely, and instead continue to consider the feedback and opinions of its audience and the wider tech community.

We can do better, and I encourage other women in tech to voice their opinions as well.