The Tinder Lawsuit: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Women In Tech

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"The Tinder Lawsuit: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Women In Tech"

Tinder co-founder and former marketing executive Whitney Wolfe is suing the dating app she helped start. She’s accusing co-founder Justin Mateen and Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Sean Rad (pictured above) of harassment, discrimination, verbal abuse, and erasing her title and contributions to the company because, in their words, she was a “girl.”

From the complaint:

“When Tinder-related articles appeared in more traditional business outlets, Wolfe’s name was often nowhere to be seen. When she would ask why only her name of the five founders was absent they would tell her ‘you’re a girl.” They stated that they couldn’t include her name in the business press, because it “makes the company look like it was an accident.” According to Mr. Mateen “a girl founder,” who at the time was 24, devalued the company. They also said five founders looked like “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Given their misogyny, it is not surprising that the sole female on the team was the one who was excluded from the business press.”

Wolfe’s contributions didn’t fit into the founding mythology so favored by Mateen and Rad, so they photoshopped her (and a whole lot of other telling information, much of which is detailed in Summers’s story) out of the narrative. And if this were the worst thing Mateen and Rad had done, well, daiyenu. But as you likely know by now, it wasn’t: Wolfe alleges Mateen subjected her to what sounds like a never-ending deluge of misogynistic vitriol and aggression in text messages, in emails and in person. Wolfe’s complaint also alleges that, in front of Rad, Mateen called her a “whore,” “gold-digger,” “a disease.”

When we talk about why girls who love science as children don’t continue to excel at math and science in high school and rarely pursue those interests in college or the professional world, we focus a lot on, well, girls: we should encourage girls to learn to code, we should send better messages to young girls about how STEM is theirs to understand and conquer, we should be inspiring girls to pursue a career in computing fields.

That is all well and good and important. But that is only half of the problem.

You can give a girl all the coding classes in the world. You can arm her with the tools to, let’s just say, be one of the founders of an enormously popular app. But it’s not enough for women to want to break into the tech world. The tech world has to want women to break in.

In Nick Summers’s piece in Bloomberg Businessweek, “The Truth About Tinder and Women Is Even Worse Than You Think,” there’s an interview with Joe Munoz, who built the technical backend of Tinder. Summers writes:

Munoz started to say that Rad hadn’t done this solely because Wolfe was a woman. But I asked him if it wasn’t the case that Rad had shunted aside a good, if not excellent, female employee in favor of someone whose main qualification was being his “bro pal.” Munoz laughed. “I think that’s a fair interpretation of events,” he said.

As long as there are guys like this—arguably the worst of Silicon Valley douchery, but given the stats on gender and sexism in the industry, they hardly seem like huge deviations from the norm—acting as the gatekeepers, will women ever be able to achieve parity in tech? Or will the smart, ambitious woman, the would-be next Zuckerberg, look at this actively hostile environment and decide that it’s not for her? Maybe she’ll look at this landscape and think, thanks but no thanks, I’d rather work someplace where I am not constantly sexually harassed, belittled, and used.

When Mateen and Wolfe’s romantic relationship when south, the complaint alleges, “He grew to be verbally controlling and abusive in the relationship.” After their break-up, Mateen stripped Wolfe of her co-founder title because “she was a 24 year old ‘girl’ with little experience… ‘Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders, it just makes it look like Tinder was some accident.’” He makes a good point, but the opposite point that he’s trying to make: women aren’t represented enough at the most high-profile Silicon Valley ventures.

As my colleague Lauren C. Williams wrote yesterday, Tinder is just the latest in a line of cases like this: “SnapChat CEO Evan Spiegel was recently outed for sending lascivious emails to his fellow fraternity brothers while attending Stanford University, some of which encouraged others to get girls drunk enough to have sex with them. Earlier this year, former Github developer Julie Ann Horvath publicly quit the firm after repeatedly witnessing and experiencing sexual harassment, including being punished professionally for spurning a male coworker’s romantic advances.”

Sure, there will be those women who are game to pave the way, who are willing to put up with all this rampant sexism to do work about which they’re passionate. But why is it just the norm for there be rampant sexism in any supposedly progressive industry, in progress-loving San Francisco, in 2014? And how much of that culture change can be driven by the population that is least represented and, by extension, the least empowered?

In an interview with Mother Jones, Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit that promotes the recruitment and retention of women in technology, said that her conviction was the gender gap in Silicon Valley “stems from the failure of Silicon Valley’s leaders to groom more women for top positions, which in turn discourages younger women from entering the field. ‘First it has to be a priority to have a diverse workforce…And the priority has to come from the top.’”

It’s all part of the same dynamic that comes up when we try to address “women’s issues.” Like: How do we get women to be taken seriously at work? We tell women to stop speaking with vocal fry and abandon all signs of femininity; we don’t tell male employers to stop discriminating against women who sound like women. How do we decide what our school dress codes should be? We blame girls for wearing “revealing” clothing that is “distracting” to boys, instead of teaching boys to treat women with respect regardless of attire and to take responsibility for their own behavior. How do we stop sexual violence? We spend an awful lot of time telling women what to do—it amounts to a level of self-defense so all-consuming that even the reality of it sounds like a satire—and not nearly enough time telling men to not rape people.

We should absolutely encourage and empower young girls to stick with math and science through high school, college and beyond. That’s the girl culture problem. It’s relatively easy to solve. But the really ugly, vicious thinking that needs to be crushed isn’t in girl culture. It’s in guy culture. And until guys want to change guy culture, we’re going to keep seeing cases like Tinder, like Snapchat, like Github.

Better get to it, boys. You have a lot of work to do.

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