Written for the second Newsletter Égalités of IRIF (May 2022), this interview aims at shedding light on the career of a woman scientist and her experience with (in)equality in the academic world. Our warmest thanks to Laure Daviaud for accepting to be part of this project.

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

I am a Lecturer at City University of London. I did my thesis at IRIF (a while ago…) with Thomas Colcombet et Jean-Éric Pin, and then various post-docs before landing in London!

What is your research work?

I work on themes around automates and optimization, and verification. More recently, I joined a team in artificial intelligence and I explore the links between learning and automata.

Why choosing Theoretical Computer Science?

A bit of luck I guess… I was a mathematics student, and I had the opportunity to take courses in theoretical computer science as part of my curriculum. I liked it, I liked the more combinatorial side of the reasoning perhaps. By taking the computer science option at the Aggregation of Maths, it reinforced my idea of continuing in computer science. I had the chance get in the Parisian Research Master in Computer Science (MPRI) at that time.

What obstacles have you encountered? What challenges have you faced as a woman scientist?

I have always found it difficult to be in the minority of women in conferences – it even happened once that I was the only woman. That inevitably stigmatises… I also find that even the most well-intentioned colleagues do not treat you the same way. The real challenge is to have everyone forget that you are a woman and to be considered as a researcher and teacher, for your qualities and flaws as such, regardless of your gender… Women are labeled (positive and negative), just because they are women. However, these labels do not always have anything to do with reality and we allow ourselves to judge them more easily.

Were you encouraged to follow this path or rather held back?

There were key moments when I was encouraged. The most important one was for my thesis. I received an email from Jean-Éric Pin, offering me an internship and a thesis funding with Thomas Colcombet. It happened when I was prospecting for a master internship, a bit randomly because I hadn't even really thought about doing a thesis and doing research seemed way beyond my abilities. I was rather thinking of taking a position as a high school teacher. If it wasn't for Jean-Éric and Thomas, I would not be doing research today. I have also always been supported by my post-doc supervisors, and by many of my colleagues. I owe a very special thanks to Mahsa Shirmohammadi without whom I would not be in the UK today.

Has anyone ever made a positive or negative comment about being a woman in theoretical computing?

Yes, both. But are positive comments really positive? I've had unpleasant remarks made to me, “you're too much like this, not enough like that” that I wouldn't have had if I were a man. There are also the countless times (and I'm sure all my female colleagues can attest to that too), where we are told that if we have been given such and such a position, that if we are invited to be part of such and such a program committee or to speak at such and such a conference, it is only because of our status as women. So we start to think so too! With each call for participation comes immediately the thought: « there were not enough women, there are not so many of us, it is only for this reason that I am invited. » In the really negative comments, I remember a very old high school teacher saying that boys are smarter, smarter at math, but that girls are more serious. I hope that we don't hear this kind of comments nowadays…

Do you feel that more attention is being paid today to gender issues in the field of Computer Science, and in the research community in general?

Yes and no. I think this has been a question for a few years now, but it is true that we are seeing more and more initiatives on this topic. That said, I'm still shocked by the lack of awareness among some colleagues (which are otherwise quite reasonable) who think there is no problem. It is true that the salary scales are the same and that there is no discrimination in hiring (or at least I have never experienced it). But don't they see that out of 250 students we take in the first year, maybe thirty are women? And that in an audience at some conferences, women can be counted on the fingers of one hand?

What do you think causes this inequality between men and women in science?

First of all, in science as in other fields, I think that society and the different treatment, even unconscious, of girls and boys from the earliest age, have their role to play. Another, more specific cause is the academic world, which benefits people who are very confident. And it turns out that it is more often a male trait of personality than a female one. Without forgetting of course the long studies, and a type of profession which is not ideal for interruptions of career. A while back, I had a discussion with some high school girls who asked me how to do a thesis and pursue an academic career in science while balancing that with a family life. Honestly, I didn't really have an answer. The long studies, the years of moving around for post-doctorates did not help me to give them a convincing answer… I am now a young mother and I still don't know what to say to them. I have examples of women who became professors and then had children. I also have examples of women who had children shortly after getting a permanent position. Their research work has slowed down considerably or even stopped. Well, I don't have many examples, but fortunately there are some that fall between the two. But reconciling parenthood and a scientific career does not seem to be a problem for our male colleagues…

How could we change this situation?

Good question! If you have the answer, let me know.