Sarah M Brown

Organizing WiML 2014

Since April, I’ve served as a co-organizer with Marzyeh Ghassmi Jessica Thompson, and Allison Chaney for the 9th Annual Women in Machine Learning Workshop (WiML) co-located with the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference, in in Montréal, QC, Canada in December. This year we had record attendance and sponsorship.  As Finance and Sponsorship Chair, I’m especially proud of our sponsorship accomplishments: we had 3 Gold Sponsors, 2 Silver and 6 Bronze and 2 Supporter Sponsors, which in total, doubled sponsorship over the previous year- a new WiML record.

As an organizing team, we met for an hour biweekly by Skype over the months leading up to the workshop. We worked fairly independently, but got great support from the WiML board as well. Organizing WiML is like running a small conference so there are a lot of things to keep track of, but past organizers have done a great job, with the support of the board at archiving everything.  For a lot of tasks we were able to copy & edit what was done the previous year, so even though the organizing team changes completely every year it’s not that hard. Organizing WiML was was of the best event-planning experiences I’ve had.  We really didn’t hit any major bumps or have painfully long meetings to avoid that.  In the days leading up to the conference, one of the last minute “problems” we has was that we had more people offer to volunteer than we had imagined jobs for.  That really speaks to the community of WiML, it’s a very supportive group of women.

In the end the workshop went smoothly- we even stayed on schedule-from an 7:00am volunteer orientation to a 5:30pm workshop end! Our biggest issue day of was mic batteries dying (but we had a backup) and a mystery projector problem(which the Convention Center staff fixed for us promptly).  We had phenomenal women (invited and contributed) in machine learning give technical talks, a poster session and small group discussions on variouscareer topics for the last session. We got great feedback from both participants and the sponsors on the whole day, especially the Career and Advice Session which was something new we tried in an attempt to balance the complaint of both too much industry focus and too much academic focus in the career panel that was held in past years.

The most rewarding part of organizing WiML, however, was throughout the rest of NIPS. Throughout the week, WiML attendees approached me to thank me for the workshop and say how much they enjoyed it. Also, several men asked how they could attend in the future. They heard about how good the talks were and were disappointed they had missed in.   I also had a number of conversations with men about how important it is for WiML to exist for the advancement of our field.  Their support is crucial in gaining ground in a field that’s about 90% men.  I went and visited the sponsors tables at NIPS and some asked how they else could support WiML.  One company that didn’t sponsor overheard me talking to another and asked for information for next year.  Machine learning is a rapidly growing field and the lack of women in the field is a broad concern- events like WiML are well received and appreciated by the community.

Our last official task as organizers is to find our replacements.  The call for organizers is currently open and it can be found here.  If  you’re a woman and a grad student or post doc working in machine learning I encourage you to apply.  Planning WiML isn’t too much work- I promise.  Over the years we’ve built an archive of what to expect and do and documented everything.