Berners-Lee challenges 'stupid' male geek culture

Berners-Lee challenges 'stupid' male geek culture

Summary: The inventor of the web has called for an end to a culture that alienates women and puts them off entering a career in technology

TOPICS: IT Employment

The inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has called for an end to the "stupid" male geek culture that disregards the work of capable female engineers, and puts others off entering the profession.

Berners-Lee said that a culture that avoided alienating women would attract more female programmers, which could lead to greater harmony of systems design. "If there were more women involved we could move towards interoperability. We have to change at every level," he said.

According to Berners-Lee, a culture exists where women can be put off a career in technology both by "stupid" behaviour by some male "geeks", and by the reactions of other women.

"It's a complex problem — we find bias against women by women. There are bits of male geek culture and engineer culture that are stupid. They should realise that they could be alienating people who are smarter and better engineers," said Berners-Lee.

Engineering research facilities that interview candidates based only on how many papers they have had published also risk adding to the problem, according to Berners-Lee, because of an apparent in-built bias against women.

One academic went through a sex change, submitted the same papers under both identities, and found that papers were accepted from a man but were rejected when they came from a woman, said the web inventor. This bias is unaccountable, but adds to institutional bias, he said.

Topic: IT Employment

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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  • What "behaviour" and "reactions"? Who is at fault?

    What behaviour is Berners-Lee talking about? What reactions? Basically, the complaint is that both men and women put women off a career in technology. Well, it doesn't mention non-geek males. So are we to assume that non-geek males encourage women to go into tech as a career?
  • The technical culture has been very discriminatory!

    There's been a lot of sexual discrimination in the technical workplace in the last 30 years - virtually all of it against men in favor of women. I worked 20 years in a technical industry that heavily discriminated against men in hiring, promotions and perks. This was not a few cases, it was an avowed policy.

    On campus, I went out of my way as a TA and professor to discriminate in FAVOR of women, as did most of my collegues.

    And yet, strangely enough, women continue to be underrepresented in the technical workplace. Hence there will be another round of beatings and male bashing until the desired result is attained.

    The only thing proved by Mr. Berners-Lee in swallowing the latest multicultural party line is that he is indeed a member of the "stupid" male geek culture.
  • Discrimination is not the real issue

    In my experience there tends to be a lot of 'positive discrimination' in favour of women in the IT industry. The few women I have worked with in this sector have always been treated very well even at the expense of their male colleagues. Now I'm not saying that is a bad thing but maybe discrimination is not the issue. While I have worked with women who enjoy technology as much as I do, these attitudes in women do seem to be rare. In other words most women find the whole tech industry crashingly boring, it doesn't interest them at all, so they don't go for it as a career. This is really about a mind set and where there are a high percentage of men really enthusiastic about technology, most women couldn't care less about it. I think this has more to do with the lack of women in the industry, and nothing is going to change that. Women prefer interacting with people rather than machines, that's why they don't choose tech careers.
  • Hit the simple nail on its easy head

    Just saw your comment on Berners-Lee's thing about women and tech. It's so simple - women don't enjoy tech half as much, they prefer interacting with people. Every male has had tonnes of personal experiences of this phenomenon.

    There is a place for B-L's point, though. Geeks often make it a point to intimidate non-geeks, whether it's in IT or computers or technology or whatever you call it, and that intimidation is extended not to women in particular, but, like I said, to any non-geek. And that is off-putting and bad. It's just a case of revelling in power and abusing it in a socially acceptable way: the power of knowledge, of the knowledge that's most valued in our times.
  • A woman? In IT?

    Well, it's not so simple, as Mr. B-L says.

    I have been working in IT departments for ten years now, and I have experienced a lot of discrimination. The fact is, those, who tried to put me away from IT, were not members of IT community at all!!

    I do work for a IT-telecommunication company as a Business Intelligence systems supervisor and designer. The whole department is divided 50/50 as looking at employees' gender. I would never say any of my co-workers ever pionted out, that my gender has any effect for my quality of work, at all!

    However, I was four years unemployed. I mean, I had hundreds of part-time jobs, but couldn't get a full-time job at all. The people at jobs agencies were not interested even to interview women for IT positions (especially helpdesk or service).

    All these stupid statistics e.g. "over 90% IT workers are male" do not mean that we are discrimined. It only means, that is a bit harder to get into the business, because of the stereotypes and patriarchic society. It will change, as everything else. The gender is not a problem anymore.
  • Recruitment agencies sexist?

    This is interesting - are you saying that some of the problem lies with recruitment companies who don't promote their female clients properly?

    I would be interested to hear if anyone else has had that experience - I guess the biggest challenge might not be sexism in the work-place but not being able to get into the workplace in the first place...
    Andrew Donoghue
  • I've seen women not getting recruited

    OK, this isn't an experience of a woman - it's the experience of a man who helps in recruitment.
    We're an IT publishing house, not an IT company, but still:
    (a) Not too many women apply.
    (b) Those who do do get called for an interview, but they're no good. (This is a matter of fact, not a personal or sexist comment.)
    (c) We've had women in the past, but they were no good. (Again, this is a matter of fact.) So we've now made it a kind of policy to look hard, very hard, at women who apply - simply because of the fear that they'll turn out to be no good.
    That's my 2 pennies' worth...
  • It's not only about specialized recruitment agencies

    A bigger problem I noticed in small companies, where recruitment process at first level is often managed by non-IT workers (e.g. a secretary looks at CV and invites only those, who suit the IT department's needs written on a sheet of a paper).

    Example? Two years ago I tried to get a part time job in a computer store as a service assistant. I called the company as a reply for an announcement.
    Me: - Good morning, I am calling to reply your job offer to service assistant...
    Company worker (a woman): - Are you calling for a job for your male friend??
    Me: - No, for me.
    Company worker: - Uh.. Sorry, we already have someone on the position...

    What do you think of that? It's even against the law, and is still quite common.

    Also, recruitment companies. All those HR officers, that just got the job skill requirements on paper, are often incompetent. Examples?? Who the hell needs a VB programmer with excellent skill of x64 assembler?? Or a helpdesk assistant with a university degree and perfect knowledge of C++ programming? In fact, I've passed many first-steps of recruitment processes only using complicated words, i.e. "sendmail", "kernel", "recompiling", "ATZ", "OLAP", "integration services"... lol.

    One of other reasons that not many of us work in IT is that often whole IT departments (sometimes whole buildings!) are still male-only. Employing only one female can turn all relationships and work environment upside down. Men, you are just scared of changes, I'm afraid.
  • Your experience is not a rule.

    That's your less than 2 pennies' worth.. You're saying women are not good enough. That' an insult. And it hurts.

    In fact, I would like to hire a programmer one day that is even half as good as my two female programmers. A system operators that does everything as fast and excellent as his female collegues.

    People are different. I know excellent women in IT, so I know those, that I'm ashamed even to say I've worked with. So is about men. A gender has nothing to do with it.
  • Are you based in Bombay?

    Thanks for the info.

    Seems from your profile you are based in Bombay - do you think that your view is a product of the attitude of Indian society to woman in the workplace?

    Or is it that woman don't get the educational opportunites that men do - I am interested in why you think female candidates don't have the skills you are looking for?

    PS - You are an existing member on ZDnet before we redesigned the site and set up the community - hence why you have a number and not a name - be good if you could change that so people can at least refer to you by a name (even if its not your real one ;-))
    Andrew Donoghue
  • Is that really fair?

    While positive discrimination has its flaws - how else do you break down established thinking and status quos?

    I really don't buy the idea that men in the IT industry are being bullied by pro-female employers - it just doesn't sound realistic. If it were true - there'd be a lot more women represented in the industry.

    Tim Berners-Lee got where he is by thinking creatively about problems and that's just what he is doing in this example. People need to stop being threatened by it and have the confidence to take a good hard look at the way things are - and if there are practical ways to improve the situation.
    Andrew Donoghue
  • As a hiring manager...

    The last time I sent a JD to a recruitment firm, they sent me precisely zero applications from women. And I'm supposed to hire one how?

    Frankly, more women need to enter the tech field and STAY in it. There are a whole host of reasons why they leave, and its not my place to analyse and fix each reason, but the bottom line is that women need to choose it, and embrace it, as a career.

    I also think Berners-Lee should stick to his core competency, rather than engaging this debate.
  • Narrow View

    If the women you have worked with have been, no good, as you put it then maybe your problem has been poor recruitment practices rather than this being a general rule with women. I have worked with several women over the years and found them all to be very talented in their respective fields. If you work with good recruitment agencies and are more open minded when interviewing you many just be surprised that there are some very talented women within the IT industry.
    Of course it could be that your views are clouded by poor social values, in which case, your never going to appreciate womens input no matter what industry sector you work in or for that matter how good they are.
  • The culture is self-perpetuating

    So many cultures are patriarchal, starting with Saudi Arabia where the women aren't even allowed to drive cars (and we bribe the princes so they'll buy our weapons. Nice.). Even in IT departments, it can be oppressive to any outsider: lots of engineers feel most comfortable thinking of the world in terms of rules, and lack the empathy to address people outside the categories in which they're placed by those rules. I've been in that sort of place in that sort of organisation, and it's most uncomfortable.

    And I've been in IT companies where the opposite is true. The difference appears to be whether you have a culture that encourages creativity; such places have a much better atmosphere, and deal with people as people. Even weird people. Even women.

    So I think the answer is to have not fewer blokes in IT, but different blokes. Men with arts degrees.

    Real men. That'll get the girls coming.
  • So the IT industry is blameless?

    Roberto - you seem to be saying that the reason that that there aren't enough women in IT is simply because...well...there aren't enough women in IT ??

    You don't really address why the recruitment agencies don't have the CV's to send you - which is addressing the symptoms of the problem but not the causes.

    Surely it is a self-sustaining problem - the IT industry is male dominated, which puts of women from applying, which means the industry continues to be male dominated. The only way to break that cycle is to take a long hard look at the culture of technology companies and departments and question if they really are as productive as they could be given their obvious male bias.

    Addressing comments made about women preferring to spend time with people than interfacing with technology - surely a lot of the usability issues that exist with software is a result of design by engineers for engineers - but impenetrable to everyone else. Anythign that breaks that bubble has to be good thing - which is not necessarily some special gift of women but just re-thinking the snobbish culture that surrounds some tech jobs.
    Andrew Donoghue
  • It's not about attitudes, it's about interests

    Hi -

    Yes, I'm based in Bombay, India. As for the nick - thanks for the reminder; Sam Bradfudge is an Anglicised version of my real name :-)

    It's not about attitudes; for example, our company has a very, very open policy regarding gender, qualifications, and so on. The thing is, not enough women are interested in tech - at least not in India. I don't know the worldwide picture. Here, women don't play games, they don't study computer languages, they have zero interest in hardware, etc. etc. I'll give you an informal example: when you tell a chap here that 2 Mbps is now available, he'll go "Wow! How much? Where do I sign up?" Tell a woman that and she'll say "Umm, nice." The difference is clear.

    I'm not sexist. It's just about interests and where competencies lie. Talking from what I've seen in India, women dominate the PR field, they make excellent managers, and doctors are at least 50% female. But when it comes to tech... it's just not happening. At least not now, and not in India.
  • your policy sucks!

    Sam you exemplify exactly what Tim was talking about.
    I am desperate to hire a female developer, to keep the mix and balance in the studio interesting and dynamic. Unfortunately, both from personal experience and casual feedback from contractors and others in the industry, too few go into IT degree courses, leading to fewer available for recruitment. IT just isn't on their horizon in general.
    But to say you chose candidates for interview that did not meet the mark, and then to say you are going to investigate the women applying in a different way to the men applying is asinine, stupid and, frankly illegal. I suspect your original briefs and job adverts were misleading, and your short-listing procedures ill-thought-out. Surely you would set criteria for the candidates and see how they meet those criteria.

    Or have I missed something?
  • IT is creative as much as logical

    This is the old debate about women and men using different parts of the brain, one gender more linear and logical and the other more networked and creative/imaginative.

    Well I don't know about you but I'm pretty certain what we need more of in IT > the social, networked, creative type. leave the linear/logical types to their 1+1+1 mentality, the creative types are the ones moving the goalposts EVERWHERE, not just in IT.

    Our organisation approaches IT issues from a creative perspective rather than a logical one and it is for this reason we are valued in our marketplace. We are 60% male but generally lead from a more feminine perspective.

    So yes, encourage the girls of the advantages (As the BCS - British Computer Society - is trying to do) of a career in IT and we chaps may just find we learn a few more things from them when they become working women.
  • obviously hate your job

    No-one is saying hire non-existent women you silly person.
    Obviously if none apply you can't even try.

    But have you seriously looked at your firm's culture (are you seen as a laddish employer, for example), or your adverts (are you sure it is not designed to appeal to men?), or the way you recruit?

    The point was not to hire a particular sex for no reason, but to encourage everyone of capability to see IT as a reasonable role. It appears you exemplify TBL's point of view. And as an academic in IT for several decades, I think TBL has something constructive to say of value, and as a recruiter, you COULD have something of value to say too if you were honest about it, rather than being flippantly negative.
  • spot on

    Spot on, Andrew, well put.
    There is a lot we can do to improve IT, and by encouraging and supporting the roughly 50% of the world who also have to interface with IT in a useful way we can create better sites, applications, interfaces, logic and processes.