By Lisa Mak
A “whore,” “gold-digger,” “desperate loser,” and “just a bad girl.” These are only a handful of the sexist comments that Whitney Wolfe, co-founder of the mobile dating app Tinder, alleges she was subjected to by chief marketing officer Justin Mateen. Last month, Wolfe brought suit against Tinder for sex discrimination and harassment. Wolfe’s legal complaint details how Mateen sent outrageously inappropriate text messages to her and threatened her job, and how Tinder CEO Sean Rad ignored her when she complained about Mateen’s abuse. Wolfe claims that Mateen and Rad took away her co-founder designation because having a 24-year-old “girl” as a co-founder “makes the company look like a joke” and being a female co-founder was “slutty.”
The conduct, which Wolfe’s complaint characterizes as “the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology startups,” unfortunately remains the norm, and Wolfe is not alone in her experience. Last year, tech consultant Adria Richards was fired after she tweeted and blogged about offensive sexual jokes made by two men at a tech conference. After one of the men was fired from his job, Richards experienced horrendous Internet backlash, including rape and death threats. She was then fired by Sendgrid after an anonymous group hacked into the company’s system in some twisted attempt at vigilante “justice.”
In 2012, junior partner Ellen Pao filed a sexual harassment suit against a venture capital firm, alleging retaliation after refusing another partner’s sexual advances. And back in 2010, Anita Sarkeesian was the target of online harassment after she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video series to explore female stereotypes in the gaming industry. An online video game was even released in which users could “beat up” Sarkeesian. These are just some of the many examples of demeaning attacks against women in the testosterone-driven tech world.
There are many state and federal laws that prohibit the kinds of workplace harassment that these women experience, including the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Bane and Ralph Act, and the California Constitution. These laws provide strong protections against gender harassment in employment and other contexts. So why do these attacks on women continue to happen in an industry that is supposedly progressive and populated with fairly educated adults?
It doesn’t help that tech companies are also notorious for their lack of diversity. This year, Google released its first diversity report which revealed that 70 percent of its workforce was male, and 61 percent was white. The workforce was also predominantly male and white at Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Another report this year shows that the percentage of women occupying CIO positions at companies has remained stagnant at 14 percent for the last decade. These numbers confirm what the stories reflect — that this industry truly is “a man’s world.” And this needs to change.
Some may dismiss Wolfe’s lawsuit and similar complaints as coming from women who are hypersensitive. Indeed, Wolfe claims that when she complained about Mateen’s harassment, she was dismissed as being “annoying” and “dramatic.” While some degree of social adaptation may be expected when joining any company, particularly freewheeling start-ups, there are limits that must be respected. Those limits are crossed when the pressure to conform to a white, male norm is so great that women who challenge this norm are further harassed or their voices suppressed.
Unfortunately, this marginalization of women who challenge the macho culture even comes from other women, who blame the “feminists” for making it harder for women to advance in tech. This also needs to change. Women who speak out about sexism and misogyny in the tech industry deserve the support of their colleagues, and men who turn to vitriol and juvenile behavior to intimidate deserve censure.
But change will not be achieved without help from sources outside the industry. Attorneys and employee advocates must continue to bring attention to the rampant sexism that is “business as usual” in the tech industry. We need to encourage tech companies of all stages and sizes to comply with employment laws, adopt proper HR practices, promote diversity and inclusion, and use objective standards to measure performance. If the tech industry is serious about encouraging young girls to become coders and developers, it also needs to place women in conspicuous leadership roles and pay real attention to changing the “guy culture.”
The tech world doesn’t have to be a man’s world, and it shouldn’t be.