How Tech Companies Use "Culture" As An Excuse For Sexism

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On June 30th, Whitney Wolfe filed a lawsuit after she was fired from her job as VP of marketing at Tinder. It wasn't the most shocking news: The company's biggest selling point is just how quickly it lets people swipe past unattractive matches, and it was accused of sexism. But, the details here were particularly vivid and unsavory.

According to the lawsuit, Tinder’s former vice president Justin Mateen stripped Wolfe of her cofounder title because having a young female founder made the company look “like a joke.” “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders,” Mateen reportedly said, “it just makes it look like Tinder was some accident.” Tinder CEO Sean Rad is implicated as well for doing nothing to intervene. Rad has called Wolfe’s allegations “annoying” and “dramatic.”

Wolfe’s complaint says that Tinder’s cofounders exemplified “the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology start-ups.” If this sounds familiar (Breaking: woman at start-up reveals widespread harassment and hostility) that’s because it is. The misogyny of Silicon Valley's young boys' club is practically a cliché, and outcry against it gets louder every day.

Earlier this year, longtime Github engineer Julie Ann Horvath resigned, saying in a tweet, “My only regret is not leaving or being fired sooner.” Her resignation came with a story of overt sexism and ongoing attacks from male colleagues and superiors. In August 2013, Scripting News founder Dave Winer claimed that women’s brains can’t handle coding as naturally as men’s can — despite the fact that the field itself was invented by a woman — and stated, “It seems pretty clear that programming as it exists today is mostly a male thing.”

Misogyny is nothing new for people using dating apps, either; in fact, sexual harassment is endemic. Popular dating site OkCupid is so well known for harassment that there’s a blog called OkCupid Hates Women. Amanda Marcotte has written compellingly about why sites and apps offering dating services tend to create the kind of culture that drives women away in droves.

“Dating websites go straight to the heart of the misogynist’s anxiety about hating women while also being attracted to women... Being a pretty young woman on OkCupid turns the volume up, because you’ve announced your interest in dating, and therefore any rejection of them is taken even more personally,” Marcotte writes.
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Ironically, Tinder was the first dating service to not have widespread complaints of sexism in its user experience, and the first to become truly popular with heterosexual women. In October of 2013, New York magazine published a benevolent analysis titled "How Tinder Solved Online Dating for Women." At the end of 2013, 45% of Tinder users were women, and it was the fastest growing free dating app in the U.S. Men and women use the service with basically the same frequency. Users told Marcotte they find it safer, more fun, and more socially acceptable than its competitors. Some of its success may come from Tinder feeling more like a game than like traditional online dating. The minimalist (no long profiles) and pre-vetted (connected to Facebook) setup has eliminated many of the harassment problems that plague dating apps such as OkCupid.

According to Amanda Hess at Slate, the app’s comprehensiveness and mainstream adoption is the result of Wolfe’s work at the company. “In light of Wolfe's suit, it seems clear that Tinder's success among women was no accident,” Hess writes. “A woman had been on the ground floor all along, until her work was diminished and covered up.”

While Tinder the product can be held up as a beacon of how to make a less-sexist app, it seems the same can’t be said of Tinder’s office culture. So, how could that be? Why would the makers of an app that aims to include women have an office culture so intent on alienating a female executive?

Chalk it up to “culture fit,” the start-up world’s practice of hiring based on whether a person fits into the company’s vibe, “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners,” as Valleywag soon after commented in a story bluntly titled "Why Culture Fit Is a Shitty Excuse for Misogyny."

The root sickness of an industry that predicates itself on “culture fit” hires is apparent in Mateen’s assertion that a 24-year-old female founder makes the company look like a joke. Mateen’s statement is a chauvinist’s interpretation of culture fit. Start-ups trade on myth and idea, on “personal branding” that often has no actual product behind it. An office culture that not only practices but celebrates hiring employees based on perceived friendship or affinity is an obvious hotbed for all kinds of discrimination and bigotry — believing a woman’s presence “devalues” the company, for instance.

Wolfe’s alleged exclusion due to the combination of her femaleness and age is exemplary of Tinder’s sexist office culture, as start-up culture’s extreme youth bias is well-documented. The rules seem blatantly hypocritical here: Youth is an asset for men but a liability for women, or perhaps just another excuse to kick women out of the club.

The great irony of the matter is that while Tinder may have been successful in creating a safe space for women in online dating, it was creating an unsafe space for the woman responsible for that success. Now, Wolfe has joined the ranks of women coming forward to document their experience with the men who run tech. Maybe someday it will finally sink in to tech entrepreneurs that if they want to reap the revenue and rewards that come from a female user base, they’re going to have to be comfortable with women being part of their staff. That means creating an office culture that does not alienate and harass those whose input is crucial to a start-up’s success.

This post was authored by Rose Eveleth and Katie DeRogatis, with contributing reporting by Helena Fitzgerald.

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