Sexism and tech

A lawsuit against Tinder further underscores the challenge many female entrepreneurs face in today's tech industry.


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The popular dating app Tinder was hit with a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit Monday. In the suit, former marketing vice president Whitney Wolfe claims she was repeatedly subjected to inappropriate and harassing messages from Justin Mateen, the company's chief marketing officer. She alleges Mateen, whom she dated before breaking it off, repeatedly called her a "whore," including in front of Tinder CEO Sean Rad. And when she complained to Mr. Rad, the suit alleges, she was dismissed as “annoying” and “dramatic."

The suit makes several additional claims, but one particularly stands out: the accusation that Mateen took away Wolfe's co-founder title, telling her that having a young female woman as part of the founding team “makes the company seem like a joke” and “devalues” the company.

That claim, if true, underscores the uphill battle many female entrepreneurs face in Silicon Valley's "brogrammer" culture, which is increasingly becoming a source of embarrassment for the tech industry.

Even though private tech companies show significantly better returns when run by women, they still receive far less funding. Through the first half of 2013, 13 percent of venture capital deals went to companies with at least one female founder — a new high, but hardly an impressive number. And part of the issue, perhaps, is that very few women are the ones doling out the investment dollars. One recent estimate put the number of partner-level women at venture capital firms at just four percent.

Stories abound of the challenges this presents women when they seek funding from the male-dominated VC community. For instance, the founder of cosmetics e-commerce company Julep recently shared with PandoDaily how one venture capitalist told her he only liked to do deals "he can feel personally passionate about" — and beauty products, it seems, were not one of them.

Meanwhile Kathryn Minshew, co-founder of job site The Muse, said in an interview with The Verge that she "got a massive slap on the wrist" from a lower-level associate at a VC firm when she asked to be contacted by someone at his company with decision-making authority. (She had been advised to say this by several male founders.) The tone of the associate's response, she said, was "don’t get too big for your britches, little girl."

It's not clear whether Wolfe did in fact lose her co-founder title at Tinder out of fear that investors would take the company less seriously because of her gender. (Tinder did not respond to an e-email about the suit.) Yet Tinder's parent company, IAC, will say that Mateen did send Wolfe inappropriate messages. In an e-mailed statement, a spokesman for IAC, which was also named in the suit, said the company had immediately suspended Mateen after receiving the allegations and began an ongoing internal investigation.

"Through that process, it has become clear that Mr. Mateen sent private messages to Ms. Wolfe containing inappropriate content," the statement says. "We unequivocally condemn these messages, but believe that Ms. Wolfe's allegations with respect to Tinder and its management are unfounded."

Tinder is far from the only tech company to come under scrutiny recently for demeaning attitudes or claims of hostile treatment toward women. A month ago, the 24-year-old founder and CEO of Snapchat had to apologize when e-mails went public that he had written as a Stanford student, which included references to getting "sororisluts" wasted. Just a few days earlier, the co-founder of Rap Genius stepped down after he used his site's annotation tool to mark up the misogynistic rant by Santa Barbara shooter Elliott Rodger. (One annotation: "MY GUESS: his sister is smokin hot.")

Prior to that, RadiumOne CEO Gurbaksh Chahal was terminated following a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence. And earlier this year, a female employee at the programming network GitHub accused that company of having a sexist culture. An internal investigation "found no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse," according to a company blog post, but did prompt the resignation of a co-founder after evidence of "mistakes and errors of judgment."

All of these incidents come at the same time that the industry grapples with increasing calls for transparency about its gender makeup and struggles to recruit and retain more female engineers. My guess: Yet another set of allegations — and another set of headlines — about sexism in the field won't do much to help.

Read also:

Nearly a third of science and tech leaders think a woman can't reach the top

Google admits it has a diversity problem

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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