Digital education

Anne-Marie Kermarrec, a strong commitment to diversity in digital science

Changed on 12/04/2021
A researcher in IT, an entrepreneur and now a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, Anne-Marie Kermarrec has just written a book, “Numérique, compter avec les femmes” (“Digital: it’s time for women”), published by Odile Jacob. We caught up with the former director of research at the Inria Rennes - Bretagne Atlantique research centre to take a look at her career and her efforts to boost diversity in the digital sector.
Anne Marie Kermarrec
© Inria / Photo C. Lebedinsky

How did you first get involved in research?

It was partly by chance; in that I was given an opportunity. I had just finished my second year at the University of Rennes and I had to choose between mathematics, economics and IT. I then spent a really enjoyable placement with André Seznec. I had a brother who was doing a PhD in IT as a mature student, and that set me on my way. I began studying for a PhD on fault tolerance in shared memory systems at Inria Rennes, and decided to stay in academia.

In 1996, after having finished my PhD, I left for Amsterdam, where I worked as a postdoctoral researcher (under the guidance of Professor Andy Tanenbaum at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). I returned to the University of Rennes as a lecturer a year later, before joining Microsoft Research in Cambridge in 2000. With the benefit of hindsight, I would say that was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career. I spent four years there before coming back to Inria Rennes in 2004 as a director of research. I then set up a research team, ASAP (standing for As Scalable As Possible), dealing exclusively with large-scale dynamic distributed systems. My focus gradually turned towards the personalisation of user experience through the GOSSPLE project, and in 2008 I was awarded an ERC Starting Grant.

In 2015, I launched Mediego, an Inria spin-off start-up based around my research at the Institute. I was CEO of the company until it was sold to Welcoming Group in 2019.

This was another case of being given an opportunity. We had technology that I really thought could form the basis of a start-up. I told myself that opportunities for researchers to try their hand at entrepreneurship don't come around that often, and so I just went for it. I was also very well-supported from the outset, both by Patrice Gelin's team in Rennes and by Laurent Kott at IT Translation. That was very reassuring when it came to making the leap.

I’m very pleased that I did - it was interesting and very different, both as a technological adventure, but also as a human adventure. It taught me so much: how to write a business plan, how to speak to clients and investors... things you don’t necessarily know how to do as a researcher. It was extremely rewarding.

That said, I’m now happy to have returned to academia, which really suits me (since 2020, Anne-Marie Kermarrec has been a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne). When you’re an entrepreneur, when you've found your market and a technology that works, you’ve left science behind.  I appreciate the freedom that comes with working in research, that and being in contact with young people. I have always enjoyed supporting them with their PhDs - I have students from all over the world, which is fantastic.

In your opinion, what do academia and entrepreneurship have in common?

I would say the capacity to adapt and to deal with rejection. As a researcher, you submit articles and projects, which you have to put out there, and you have to be able to bounce back when they’re rejected. It's the same when you set up a company. You have to sell your product to investors and clients and learn how to cope with rejection. One advantage of moving from academia to entrepreneurship is the credibility this gives you in the eyes of potential clients.

But the management side of things is completely different. When you're in charge of a research team, obviously you’re responsible for PhD students, but in entrepreneurship, the stakes are so high that good management is essential if you want everyone to be involved in the adventure. Like I said before, it’s a real human adventure.

You've just published a book on the place of women in digital. What was the driving force behind this project?

I had written a few columns for the Binaire blog on the Le Monde website over a few years for International Women's Day, and I seized on the first lockdown as an opportunity to take this further and put my thoughts on the subject into writing.

I wanted to speak about what I had seen over 25 years, drawing on my experience in science and entrepreneurship. It’s not a scientific paper - it's quite personal, based on what I’ve read or seen over the course of my career or on different scientific committees. I tackle a number of subjects in the book: the rarity of female Nobel laureates, bias in AI, sex robots and the digital sector. I also discuss possible solutions, when I have them, but I don’t have some magic wand.

And your overall assessment is that there’s a lack of diversity in digital?

Exactly. Our sector is badly affected by this, and even if efforts have been made, there is still a lot of bias, from both men and women. There are more women at the bottom of the ladder than at the top, for example. When women write papers, their tone is less incisive and less confident, and they are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome. Meanwhile, when men write letters of recommendation to someone, they don’t highlight the same qualities for men and women, nor do they use the same terms. It’s all about the little things.

Broadly speaking, this is something I've always been interested in. I don't believe I've personally suffered because of this situation, but I have often been the only woman at scientific assemblies. The problem is that you get used to it, to the extent that you sometimes don't even think about it.

But there are signs that things are changing. To begin with, equality was ignored, nobody talked about it. In the early 2000s, people started speaking out about the lack of women in the sector, and over the past ten years or so there has been a real change as we’ve tried to find solutions and to take action.

A lot of initiatives aimed at pushing young women towards maths and science have been introduced. This won't solve everything, but at least we're making progress, even if it is quite slow.  This is a long-term endeavour, which will involve parents, teachers, men and women. We all have biases, even the most aware among us - the most important thing is to be mindful of them and to work on them.