The dating app Tinder has gained a following among users by distinguishing itself from similar services. It’s been called “female-friendly” and described as “a hook-up app that women actually use” — but a lawsuit from a former executive suggests that the company’s culture reflects the same hostility to women that’s been noted throughout the tech industry.
Whitney Wolfe, a co-founder of the dating app Tinder, filed a lawsuit on Monday alleging gender discrimination and sexual harassment against Tinder and its parent company, IAC, Inc.
The lawsuit lays out an account of harassment that began when Justin Mateen joined the company as chief marketing officer. Overcoming her reluctance, he pursued a romantic relationship with Wolfe shortly after he became her immediate supervisor. Wolfe says that Mateen became controlling and abusive during their relationship. When she broke it off, Mateen aggressively belittled her within the company.
At one point, Whitney Wolfe was promoted as Tinder’s “inventor” and co-founder in fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. She named the app, and her marketing savvy was often cited as the reason it found an audience among young women. Her role in the company was widely touted as an exception to male-dominated startup culture.
According to the lawsuit, Mateen told Wolfe, who was 24 years old at the time, that “he was taking away her ‘Co-Founder’ title because having a young female co-founder ‘makes the company seem like a joke’ and ‘devalues’ the company.” Mateen had also been designated a co-founder of the company despite joining after the fact, and argued that Wolfe’s title undermined him.
Wolfe’s lawsuit notes that her experience represents “the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology startups.”
The suit says that Mateen spewed constant invective at Wolfe, often in front of colleagues, calling her (among other things) “disgusting,” a “desperate loser,” a “slut,” and a “whore.” It includes damning text messages from Mateen that further berated her. When Wolfe complained to Sean Rad, Tinder’s CEO, her concerns were ignored. She alleges that Rad eventually forced her out of the company because of the abusive situation with Mateen.
“We unequivocally condemn these messages, but believe that Ms. Wolfe’s allegations with respect to Tinder and its management are unfounded,” IAC said in a statement.
Mateen has been suspended pending an investigation. IAC did not respond to questions about why the company believes the suit’s allegations are unfounded. Attempts to directly contact executives at Tinder and IAC for comment were unsuccessful.
TechCrunch has posted an email sent by Sean Rad to Tinder employees in which he writes, “I’ve learned a lot through this process and I wish I had done more in terms of managing what was clearly a complex situation. The communications between Justin and Whitney that have come to my attention through this process are just unacceptable. However, as many of you know, Whitney’s legal complaint is full of factual inaccuracies and omissions. We did not discriminate against Whitney because of her age or gender, and her complaint paints an inaccurate picture of my actions and what went on here.”
Mateen’s text messages alone appear to make the case that Wolfe was sexually harassed at Tinder, but it’s hard to tell whether her experience was due to one jealous ex trying to ruin her career or to pervasive company sexism. Elissa Shevinsky, the CEO of Glimpse, an app that allows private picture messaging, believes that Mateen and tech culture in general are to blame.
“Expressing feelings for an employee you supervise is obviously sexual harassment,” Shevinsky told VICE News. “That Whitney Wolfe was forced out of the company that she helped jumpstart — because things got messy, as a result of complications from that unethical relationship — is deeply troubling.”
But Shevinsky also bemoaned a problem of “pattern recognition” in tech that blinds people to the concept of a young woman being a company leader.
“The pattern recognition for women is that we look like secretaries, not founders,” said Shevinsky.
Stories of sexism in the startup scene aren’t new. Articles have warned of the rise of the “brogrammer,” a frat-like evolution from nerd identity to male chauvinism. Wolfe’s lawsuit notes that her experience represents “the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology startups.”
But Dan Shapiro, who sold his comparison-shopping startup Sparkbuy to Google in 2011, told VICE News that the brogrammer is essentially a caricature of the broader problem of sexism.
“The everyday sexism in the tech industry is usually less gaudy,” said Shapiro, “It’s made of inappropriate comments. It’s made of decisions that quietly exclude or assume. It's made of assumptions that put people in certain buckets.”
A few years ago, Shapiro was giving fundraising advice to two young founders of a tiny startup when one of them pointed to his receptionist and referred to her as “eye candy.” He said that the two founders seemed “shell-shocked” when he took exception to the sexist comment.
Shevinsky said that the brogrammer culture is largely due to a lack of women in tech. Recent workplace diversity numbers released by Google and Facebook show that about 70 percent of their employees are male. Twitter wasn’t comfortable enough to make its figures public.
“It happens when there are male-centric environments with frat-boy humor and very few women,” she said.
Shevinsky was one of many horrified women programmers who watched TechCrunch’s 2013 Disrupt conference kick off with a presentation for a joke app called “Titstare.” The presenters stood in front of a giant screen showing a couple of photos of women’s chests and pitched the app as “the breast, most titillating fun you cans [sic] have.”
TechCrunch later tweeted out an apology for the Titstare presentation, vowing to “more carefully screen from now on.”
While the tech scene can be an uncomfortable place for women on the inside, the use of its products can result in similar problems.
The artist Anna Gensler had a rough experience that began on Tinder. Gensler was fed up with receiving creepy and explicitly sexual messages from strangers on the dating app — so she started drawing unflattering pictures of them and posting them online.
After Gensler’s Granniepants art project went viral, she started getting death threats like this one: “It is not that hard to find where you live and work. I will find you and kill you.”
The police had little response when Gensler approached them with the IP address showing the location where the messages were coming from and other details about the user. She wrote a blog post in June complaining that a detective finally took minor action once the threats were directed at the police.
“When people harass women online, they are often dismissed as trolls or people who are somehow not like us,” Amanda Hess, who writes about technology and gender for Slate, told VICE News. She noted similarities between online harassment and the verbal abuse Wolfe says she faced at Tinder.
“This shows that there is not this hard line between people in power and trolls,” said Hess.
Follow Mary Emily O'Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara