NIPS AI Conference to Continue Laughing about Nipples at the Expense of Women in Tech

Panel discussion on Adversarial Training at NIPS 2016.

This past Tuesday, the Neural Information Processing Systems conference announced that after a survey of former attendees, they would not be changing their name. If you’re quick with acronyms, you have likely already figured out why this possibility was being discussed in the first place. NIPS is one of the biggest and most prestigious artificial intelligence conference in the world. It has been held annually since 1987, and will be hosted from December 3rd to 8th in Montreal, Canada this year.

The sexual connotations of this name haven’t been a secret for many years but certain AI researchers, particularly women, started voicing their concerns more publicly surrounding last year’s conference in Long Beach, California. In a field already so strongly dominated by men, many women feel uncomfortable with this name, which often elicits crude jokes and opens the door for harassment. For instance, the audience cheered Elon Musk as he joked about tits and nips in a keynote talk last year. The AI company Dessa (formerly was promoting t-shirts with the slogan ‘My NIPS are np-hard’ — Their self proclaimed ‘diverse’ team of 28 employees includes only 4 women.

So when the conference finally announced they would consider a name change, it seemed like a step in the right direction. The survey they conducted, however, was not. As a conference on what is essentially fancy statistics, you might expect them to have a better grasp on concepts like sampling bias.

Of the 2270 former participants who responded to the survey, 1881 were men and only 294 were female (95 chose not to disclose their gender) ( ). By only inviting former attendees of the conference to respond to the survey, the organizers had to have known that the demographics would break down in this way. This drowns out the voices of the minority of people — women — most affected by this issue and completely erases the voices of any women who have been discouraged from attending the conference in the past due to the name or to the fratty, sexist culture in tech more broadly.

Skeptics will be quick to point out that of the women that did respond, 44% favored a name change, 40% favored keeping the current name, and 16% were indifferent, thus “not yield[ing] a clear consensus”. This misses the point at a more profound level. Women may not unanimously agree that the name is offensive, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that 130 women who responded to the survey want the name to change (along with many men). There are multiple reasons for wanting to keep the name; because of the tradition and name recognition, because it would be a gesture without real consequences (we’ll dig into this in a moment), or because one genuinely finds it funny. None of these carry the same weight, however, as feeling unsafe and objectified at a professional conference. Regardless of the number of people who want to maintain the status quo, those 130 women want the name to change, and that’s not something that should be easily shrugged off.

In the announcement of the survey results, NIPS also announced that they would be taking certain steps to promote diversity at the conference. They have appointed Diversity and Inclusion chairs, and will be introducing childcare support among other initiatives. These are certainly welcome changes, but there is no reason both these and the name change cannot be implemented. Some in favor of keeping the name have written off this survey and discussion as a distraction from more substantial barriers to women in tech, and while these are certainly numerous, hostile work conditions are a major one. In the long run, the name change would not be so costly that it would come at the expense of other diversity initiatives, and when it comes to issues of name recognition, the sooner it is changed, the better. Attendance has been growing every year, and this year the conference notably sold out in under 12 minutes, so it seems unlikely that a name change would result in a drastic drop in attendance.

By conducting this survey and publicly announcing the result, the NIPS conference organizers knew that they would be making an important statement, one way or the other. Rather than choosing to oppose a tradition that promotes sexism and harassment, they decided that the majority — the men who have attended in the past — count more than those women who chose to speak up and criticize the name, both through the survey and publicly, at risk to their own careers.

If you feel strongly about this issue, consider signing this open letter to the NIPS board asking them to reconsider:

Therese is a PhD student in Neuroscience at UT Southwestern. She is interested in the neural circuitry of learned behaviors, scicomm, and diversity in STEM.

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