10 Things I Learned Building the Paris WiMLDS Meetup

The Paris WiMLDS team and May 2018’s speakers

🗣 Before you start reading this article, let’s make sure you know what Meetup and WiMLDS are. Meetup is a social network platform allowing users to organize events specific to a theme. Meetups exist all around the world, here are a few examples from the Paris scene: Paris Tag Rugby, Paris Machine Learning Group, Paris Spark Meetup…etc. As for the acronym “WiMLDS”, it stands for Women in Machine Learning & Data Science.


Since I created the Paris WiMLDS meetup in August 2017, I’ve heard many comments about how “sexist” the existence of it was. I want to be vocal about something : the Paris WiMLDS meetup is featuring female speakers and open to everybody regardless of gender or background.

No one feels disturbed when the R Finance conference or a KDD Workshop are featuring exclusively male speakers. Inviting exclusively male experts is not shocking? I think it is. Having all-male speakers reinforces the unconscious association between competence and the male figure. By creating a meetup open to all but having only female speakers we wanted to help fighting this association.

This is 2018 😔 Even if we noticed the efforts of conferences’ organizers to invite diverse speakers, there is still a significant effort to make in terms of representations in the audience and on stage.

Here is what I learned while creating a meetup from scratch with a wonderful team.


How it started

In April 2017, I met Chloé-Agathe Azencott during the ICLR conference. I had been following and admiring her for quite while (but I never told her!).

During this conference dedicated to Machine Learning, my company at the time (Criteo Labs) organized a cocktail. Fearlessly, I invited Chloé thinking she would not show up. I was wrong and literally ecstatic when I saw her at the venue’s entrance! We quickly talked together about the representation of women in the academic world.

We both shared the same point of view : women are here but they are not visible enough. As a recruiter, I attend tech and scientific conferences all around the world. Without using any scientific measurement tools, I saw that women were less numerous than men to attend conferences and rarely on stage! On a positive note, I noticed more women in Machine Learning & Data Science compared to pure tech communities (at least in France).

Graphic from the Element AI Medium.

After one hour talking together, Chloé and I decided to see each other again in order to take the conversation to the next level.


We created the Paris WiMLDS meetup

A few weeks later, we brainstormed and found out about the Women in Machine Learning and Data Science community. This community was both global and local and well known on a large scale. No chapter was existing in Paris. It became quite obvious that we would volunteer to open it!

The global WiMLDS team was super helpful and enthusiastic. They provided guidelines to help organizing the best events : logos, code of conduct…etc. One of the reasons which led us to choose WiMLDS is the explicit desire to highlight women speakers and keep the events open to any gender. It was a key element in the way we wanted to design our events! Indeed, getting a more diverse crowd of experts in Machine Learning & Data Science implies getting men & non-binary individuals on board! 🚻

Once all the elements were collected, Chloé and I joined forces with 2 other engineers : Chiara Biscaro, a former astrophysicist who became a Data Scientist and Fanny Riols, a Software Engineer in Machine Learning. Since last year, Fanny moved to Canada and Marina Vinyes stepped up to complete the team.

The Paris WiMLDS team : Fanny Riols, Chloé-Agathe Azencott, Chiara Biscaro and myself. Marina Vinyes recently joined the team to replace Fanny.

🔥 Instead of thinking about why the situation was what it was, we acted.

From the beginning, the format of the meetup was obvious. We decided to systematically have 2 talks : an academic one + an industry one. As for the third part, it was quite clear we wished an interactive meetup. We wanted the audience to be active. Until now, we have organized round-tables, panel discussions, tutorials or welcome speakers from different fields: engineering, human resources, economics…etc for the attendees to open their minds.

The WiMLDS Paris meetup was born!

Here are a few thoughts I wanted to share 👇


✖️ Be ready to face the critics

Unsurprisingly, when we created to meetup, we faced comments such as :

“your meetup is sexist”, “I will not attend because it’s only for women”, “men are better at maths than women”.

The last quote is my favorite! A guy said it to my face right after James Damore published his famous 10-page Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber document. No matter what you do, always be keen to explain again and again the aim of your actions. Convince everybody it’s powerful for any gender.

Did these comments have an impact on the WiMLDS Paris team? Hell no! Nonetheless, it confirmed our desire to organize round tables or panels and invite male speakers during the third part of our meetup. We never wanted to make the mistake of excluding male engineers because we know we need them as well to make Machine Learning, Data Science and tech in general more diverse!

Very frequently, the WiMLDS Paris team and myself remind that our meetup is featuring women speakers and open to everybody regardless of gender or background.

📊 One year ago, our meetup’s attendees were 80% female and 20% male. During the last meetup we hosted, in June 2018, the ratio was 60% female and 40% male. It’s the proof that men feel welcomed and come for the talks’ content. While the meetup became more and more successful, women kept coming (back) and men started to hear about it and be more numerous than when we started.

Having allies is instrumental. HeFor She and Better Allies are doing a tremendous work.

🤝 Organizing a meetup requires an exceptional teamwork

Organizing challenging and thought-provoking meetups requires time and effort. It’s all worth it! Apart from finding the speakers, there are a lot numerous tasks: finding a host, communicating online, dealing with incoming requests…etc. In order to optimize what we do, we created templates, dashboards to divide the workload among the team. Chiara is our communication master, Marina is our hosts point of contact and Chloé and myself take care of finding the unusual speakers. Without being organized, we could not combine our daily jobs and the meetups’ organization.

🙅‍ ️Women are not used to speaking in public

To find speakers, we started to contact female engineers and researchers from our personal network. Many of them were enthusiastic about preparing a talk and enabled us to feature kick-ass line-ups. We also found volunteers thanks to the speaker’s spreadsheet.

One challenge we faced was convincing female engineers to talk in public. We proudly convinced Nathalie Lamy, CTO at Netatmo, Tatiana Starikovskaya, Assistant Professor at ENS and Betty Moreschini, Software Engineer at vpTech, to speak for the very first time!

For instance, Nathalie prepared herself beforehand, came with several co-workers at the meetup and once she spoke at WiMLDS Paris, she got invited to talk at the 10th anniversary of Duchess.fr.

As for Betty, she enjoyed speaking so much that she submitted talks proposals to several conferences and meetups she could hope to take part to afterwards.

This kind of story is the reason why the whole WiMLDS Paris team organizes meetups. We give women a positive platform for them to speak.

🔴 Creating role models is pivotal

Unfortunately, too often, potential women speakers thought their projects were not interesting when we reached out to them. They told us: “my project is not really interesting” or “what I do will not sound interesting to people”.

Those arguments are our main obstacle. It’s the embodiment of the impostor syndrom women feel about themselves. They constantly lack confidence and think they are not legitimate in their area of expertise.

Our meetup creates role models for existing + future engineers and researchers. The need of role models is absolutely crucial as already demonstrated in 2008 by Ingrid Bauer in her paper entitled The Need for Female Role Models in Engineering Education. It helps to “demonstrate that becoming an engineer is attainable by “someone like them”.

🦄 Many attended their first meetup

During each occurrence of the Paris WiMLDS meetup, we witnessed a surprising fact: many attendees came to a meetup for the very first time.

For instance, Gaayathry Pajaniappa, a Data Scientist and Architect working at Accenture, wrote a beautiful piece about her experience at the Paris WiMLDS. She explained why it’s important to network with peers.

This kind of feedback is instrumental for the WiMLDS Paris meetup. We enable women to create a habit: attending meetups!

🎤 Women are inspiring and careful speakers

One thing that struck me the most was how serious our speakers are at preparing themselves.

Every time, we organize a meetup, we ask our speakers several pieces of information: Twitter account, picture, title of their presentation and an abstract. Systematically, we inform them we will request their slides two days before the meetup to merge all the slides and avoid any technical issue on the D-day. None of our speakers failed at respecting the deadline and all our past meetups went smoothly!

Very frequently, our speakers prepare their intervention making sure their team members review their slides or, even better, rehearse beforehand!

They deep dive about their expertise, they care about making themselves understood. For instance, Tatiana Starikovskaya, Assistant Professor at ENS, presented a very theoretical topic about Ultra-efficient Algorithms for Testing Well-Parenthesised Expressions. She initially feared people would not be interested. However, she captured all the attendees’ attention with crystal clear explanations and received ecstatic feedback (1, 2, 3)!

WIRED worked with Element AI to estimate the diversity of leading machine learning researchers, and found that only 12 percent were women. Initiatives such as WiMLDS aim at increasing this number.

🌠 Partner with conference organizers and other meetups

In March 2018, we were the Paris Ambassadors of the Women in Data Science Conference. We organized a whole event with the Paris Data Ladies meetup. We welcomed the 2017 Best Data Scientist, organized round-tables on various technical topics and coding workshops for kids (cf. see below). This kind of events enables us to go beyond our initial mission because we show how France is a strong country in Data Science and kids how fun doing mathematics and coding can be.

More recently, we partnered with the DotAI Conference where Chloé talked about “Using Structure to Select Features in High Dimension”.

The video of the talk is here. The slides and the Jupyter notebook are available here.

An ongoing partnership with the React Conference organizers offers a special 15% discount with the “ReactiveWiMLDS18” promo code. These partnerships are helping the conferences to attract a more diverse crowd.

In the future, we could imagine partnering (like the New-York WiMLDS meetup) with the scikit-learn community who regretted “having only one woman in this long list of contributors” during its last sprint in France.

In 2019, the WiMLDS Paris team will run a joint event with other Parisian meetups. The point is to show that our meetup is not only about putting women front and center, it is also a recognized scientific and technical meetup in its own! If this first attempt is successful, we will consider doing it on a regular basis.

📖 Sharing knowledge is instrumental

As soon as we created our meetup, we communicated in English.

First, French are good at English (yes, I swear! At least in the Data Science and tech community😉). Second, while working in Machine Learning & Data Science, it does not make sense to use French.

Most importantly: our meetup goes beyond Paris. Everybody in the world can access our meetups’ content online. Another positive outcome is to help foreign engineers and researchers working in Paris find a place where they interact easily with peers! Language should not be a limit. With a Spanish, an Italian and 2 French in the WiMLDS Paris team, we had to be exemplary!

Post written in June 2018 by one of the most loyal WiMLDS attendee : Natalie.

🔫 Meetups are limited

The WiMLDS meetups empower existing engineers, data scientists and researchers to network and share knowledge.

However, if we want to make the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) world more balanced and diverse, we should encourage kids to experiment, play with numbers and computers.

In that regard, we would be thrilled to help more. We believe our contribution will be added to the ones of companies, NGO and organizations such as Magic Makers.

🎁 Being a meetup organizer brings responsibilities & opportunities

In addition to the time spent organizing the meetups, the whole WiMLDS Paris team is frequently involved in complementary actions. It brings another dimension to the scope of our activity. Here are some examples:

· Chloé was involved in the #AIforHumanity effort and took part to a workshop which led the creation of the Villani report, a national project “For a Meaningful Artificial Intelligence”.

· Fanny presented her daily job at her engineering school (EPITA)

Fanny Riols is now working at Element AI, in Canada.

· Chiara and Marina spent an entire day (entitled Aujourd’hui je code” and organized by Criteo Labs engineers) with 50 students to make them discover code and infrastructure issues

· I was part of a panel organized by LGBTech and nominated as one of the “100 most influential French people in AI”.


Conclusion

The WiMLDS Paris meet-up is going to launch its “Season 2" on September 19th 2018 with an exceptional talk by Erin LeDell from H2O.ai and later on September 26th of 2018 at BlaBlaCar. The whole team is dedicated to keep encouraging women to share knowledge with their peers, being on stage and in the spotlight!

On a personal note, I will take part to a panel about “Gender in Tech” at the European Parliament on the 25th of September 2018 alongside Maria Rosa Gibellini, EIF Director General, to make sure our experience at WiMLDS Paris encourages more people to make the tech industry a more diverse one, especially in Machine Learning & Data Science!

💎 Additional read on the topic :

[📜] If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention by Rachel Thomas

[📜] AI is The Future — But Were Are The Women? by Tom Simonite

[ 📽] Gender Equality as an Innovation Challenge by Sarah Kaplan

[📜] Diversity in Tech Conferences and Meetups — How and Why by Matthew Skelton

[📜] What Can Conferences Do To Attract More Women Speakers? by Trisha Gee

[📜] Four Reasons Not To Go To A Technical Meetup by Mary Loubele

[📜] Estimating the Gender Ratio of AI Researchers Around the World by Sam Hudson

[ 🎧] Les machines ont-elles un sexe? Featuring Justine Cassell