Tinder, the social media app, delights in its ability to generate buzz. For, while it presents itself as a “dating” device, it also enables sexual hookups – which adds to both its popularity and its commercial appeal.
But now it has created a different type of controversy. This week Whitney Wolfe, former vice-president for marketing, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Justin Mateen, a fellow Tinder co-founder. This alleges that Mr Mateen publicly labelled Ms Wolfe a “whore”, and a “gold-digger”, and stripped her of her co-founder title claiming that, as “a young girl”, she “makes the company look like a joke”.
Executives at InterActiveCorp, Tinder’s parent company, have rejected Ms Wolfe’s accusations but Mr Mateen has been suspended. And the incident has created a cyber storm, following other lurid tales of tech industry sexism in Silicon Valley and beyond, and blogosphere debates about the “frat pack” culture of many start-ups.
This controversy might seem as old as dating itself. After all, charges of sexism have long plagued other corners of business, particularly on Wall Street. This week, for example, a lawsuit was launched against Goldman Sachs alleging systematic anti-female discrimination, which the bank denies.
But what makes Los Angeles-based Tinder’s tale particularly striking is the fact that these sexism charges fly in the face of the Valley’s self-created image as a bastion of liberal, cutting-edge thought. More notable still, these sexism charges are just the tip of an iceberg of much bigger gender bias in the computing world – a pattern that has been getting worse, not better, in recent years.
The numbers are shocking. Back in the mid-1980s, women represented 30-40 per cent of all university students in computing science courses in the UK and US. A similar proportion of women worked in this nascent industry, too. But, as the sector has grown, the female proportion has plunged: today barely one-tenth of all US students studying computer science are women, and, as Susan Wojcicki, chief executive of YouTube, recently lamented in a blog post: “Fewer than 1 per cent of high school girls express interest in majoring in computer science.”
The problem does not seem to lie with biology – girls are absorbing the message that computing science is a male pursuit
Similarly, only one in 10 Silicon Valley start-ups is run by women, and these often struggle to raise funds. And, while a quarter of employees in the overall information technology industry are women, according to government statistics, few hold senior jobs. Surveys by Google, Facebook and Yahoo suggest barely a fifth of their executives are female. As Google observes, with masterly understatement: “We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity.”
Some executives blame this pattern on genetics; women, it is whispered, are less equipped to handle complex quantitative issues, or the aggressive, risk-taking culture of start-ups. But biology alone does not provide answers. Women are well represented in other quantitative fields; they are awarded about 40 per cent of PhDs and bachelor’s degrees in statistics, for example, and hold a plethora of senior statistics jobs. There are also plenty of female computer scientists in countries such as China or Malaysia. At Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce company, about a third of the partners are women.
So the problem seems to lie with culture not biology: girls are absorbing the message in the educational system that computing science is a male pursuit. A Silicon Valley start-up culture has emerged that assumes entrepreneurs need to be young, hoodie-wearing male geeks. “The tech industry has lauded itself for being the true meritocracy – a society of idealists where anyone and everyone is given a chance,” Divya Manian, a female computer scientist, recently wrote. “Yet, discrimination is all around us.”
The good news is that some large technology companies, and other industry leaders, are trying to fight back. Ms Wojcicki recently teamed up with Google and institutions such as the Girl Scouts, MIT Media Lab and Khan Academy, the non-profit educational website, to create an initiative called Made with Code, which encourages girls to learn to write software. Ventures such as Girls Who Code or Hackbright do the same. Establishments such as California’s Harvey Mudd College have created courses to suck girls into computing science. Google and Facebook are actively trying to hire and promote more women at all levels. And this month a group of female computer scientists, including Ms Manian, launched a blog to share horror stories about sexism in the industry and to fight for change.
The bad news is that nobody expects these initiatives to rectify the gender imbalance fast. For, while the tech industry might worship the concept of reinvention, cultural patterns have a nasty habit of becoming entrenched, particularly when there is money and hubris involved. The one big blessing is that as tales such as the Tinder lawsuit emerge the sense of online outrage is spreading. And, in the last resort, this cyber protest may turn out to be the factor that forces the kind of “disruption” the Silicon Valley culture needs.