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The truth about tech’s sexism problem is even worse than you think
The real issue isn’t that women face sexism in the tech industry. It’s that they face sexism everywhere.
But every now and then, it’s especially sexist, like Sexist Superman exploded out of the underoos of the latest set of khaki-clad dudebros—as in the case of Tinder, where co-founder and former marketing vice president Whitney Wolfe is suing the company for sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. The suit includes detailed discussions of sexist incidents, along with a series of truly breathtaking texts from fellow co-founder Justin Mateen.
What’s life like behind the scenes at Tinder for a woman? A woman who, no less, was the driving force between pushing her co-founders to develop the app, who named the app, and who played a critical role in the success of Tinder?
Tinder’s Chief Marketing Officer Justin Mateen repeatedly called Ms. Wolfe a ‘whore,’ including in front of CEO Sean Rad,” the suit states in the introductory section, and he told Ms. Wolfe that he was taking away her ‘Co-Founder’ title because having a young female co-founder ‘makes the company seem like a joke’ and ‘devalues’ the company.
Mr. Mateen and Mr. Rad subjected Ms. Wolfe to a barrage of horrendously sexist, racist, and otherwise inappropriate comments, emails and text messages, including describing one person as a ‘liberal lying desperate slut’ and others as ‘middle age Muslim pigs’ and referring, for example, to ‘fucking’ the wife of a prominent blogger, and a text depicting IAC Chairman Barry Diller as a penis.
The suit goes on to describe what sounds like a living nightmare, as Mateen and Wolfe initially were involved in a romantic relationship, he became increasingly controlling and aggressive, and she ultimately broke up with him. He insisted that she “be ‘a good girl’ and stay away from other men for a period of six months during which time he would evaluate her to determine whether she was ‘worthy’ of being with him, or whether she was the ‘slut’ that he considered her to be before she met him.”
Meanwhile, he barraged her with texts, despite her pleas to Rad for help, and she finally threw in the towel when Mateen called her a “whore” at a company event, in front of witnesses. She went to Rad and said she wanted to resign in exchange for a reasonable severance and a full vesting of her stock, but he fired her—exactly as she’d feared, as suggested in a series of texts with friend Alexa Dell.
This is a story that is not at all unfamiliar for women working in tech. In fact, it almost feels like the status quo. Wolfe was treated with repeated casual misogyny in the workplace, no one helped her when she asked for assistance, and she was also confronting ageism and the notion that a young, confident woman couldn’t possibly be an important part of a company. When she fought back aggressively, she was fired. It sounds a great deal like what happened to Julie Ann Horvath earlier this year.
Thanks to the inclusion of the damning texts in the legal complaint, Mateen was suspended immediately—Tinder had effectively no choice, and it will likely move to fire him. Rad may be able to escape punishment for his active role in harassing Wolfe as well as his passive one in refusing to provide relief when she filed sexual harassment complaints. The company as a whole, though, will likely be paying damages, and they could be hefty, depending on the outcome of the jury trial Wolfe and her attorneys are demanding.
The casual, confident belief that sexism will go unnoticed, unremarked, and unpunished is rife in the tech industry, which has long been known as a boys’ club. Measures like Google’s attempt to include more women at its 2014 I/O conference and offer to train more women in tech seem almost like too little, too late, a pathetic attempt to make good on a situation that runs far deeper than the lack of women in tech. The problem isn’t just that women have a tough time breaking into the industry, that workplaces are hostile to them, but that the very structure of the society they live in is hostile.
Take, for example, the comments on this Wired article about the increased presence of women at I/O:
So there are more women this year because women were given special handout tickets with a subsidized price…I do take issue with pinning this on discrimination, and all the incessant nonsense about women being oppressed…I hope no male programmers made any ‘forking’ or ‘dongle’ jokes that may offend some stroppy cow’s sensibilities and cause her to claim she had been ‘raped’ by their male ‘privilege’…It wouldn’t surprise me if EVERY woman that applied was accepted, then they started accepting the men’s applications…Nearly all successful, cutting edge tech companies were created by men.
The comments go on, devolving into a knock-down, drag-out in the comments over whether women in tech are now getting “preferential” treatment in these PC-ridden times. Similar wars appear in the comment sections of numerous articles about women in tech, riddled with stereotypes, sexism, misogyny, and an active hatred of the very idea that women might deserve a place at the programming desk.
For women in tech, the problem isn’t just with sexism and misogyny on a basic corporate level—but all around them. It’s in the fact that many male tech consumers are sexist and resistant to the idea that women deserve equal footing in the industry. It’s in the fact that male gamers hurl misogynistic abuse at women. It’s in the fact that women working in science and tech journalism and writing are disparaged and sent death threats. It’s in the fact that on an giveny day, women in technology know they’re highly likely to wake up to yet another ugly sexist scandal in tech.
Because the tech industry is a product of the sexist culture that surrounds it. While the industry may represent a pinnacle of sexism, it wasn’t created in a vacuum—and pretending like it was will bring us no closer to resolving the terrible culture for women in tech. From the start, women like Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Betty Holberton played a critical role in the development of hardware, firmware, and software, only to be vanished from the history books and discussions about computing.
It wasn’t because tech was sexist, but because society was. For the thousands of women who labored as literal “computers” operating massive mainframes, or those who worked at Bletchly Park on Ultra, the problem was sexism and the assumption that what they were doing was unimportant—or that they were temporarily doing men’s work only because of unusual circumstances. The technology industry was born in a sexist culture, and the same sexism seen in tech carries over into other industries—entertainment, research science, education, and more.
Addressing the situations that make tech work so frustrating, and sometimes dangerous, for women requires taking another step back. The technology industry is but one tree in a massive forest, and sexism is the canker that’s destroying it.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.