Tinder Lawsuit Paints Tech World as 'Worse' Than 'Frat-Like'

CMO Suspended After Internal Investigation

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Tinder 3x2
Tinder 3x2

A lawsuit filed by a female executive alleging harassment and discrimination at a popular dating startup is reinforcing concerns that the technology industry is still a boys' club that's unwelcoming to women.

Whitney Wolfe, former VP-marketing for Tinder who described herself as a co-founder, said in a lawsuit filed June 30 that co-founder Justin Mateen verbally disparaged her and that company executives ignored her complaints and didn't publicly recognize her as a co-founder because she's a "girl."

Tinder's Chief Executive Officer Sean Rad said in an internal memo to employees obtained by Bloomberg News and confirmed by the company that the allegations are "full of factual inaccuracies and omissions." Mr. Rad and the company, as well as parent IAC/InterActiveCorp, which was also named in the lawsuit, haven't yet responded in court.

The allegations raised in the complaint underscore the perception of the U.S. technology industry as a male-dominated culture unfriendly to women, according to Scott Kessler, an analyst at S&P Capital IQ in New York.

'Alpha-male stereotype'
"Although it is tempting to describe the conduct of Tinder's senior executives as 'frat-like,' it was in fact much worse -- representing the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology startups," Ms. Wolfe said in her complaint against Tinder, filed in state court in Los Angeles.

Mr. Rad, 28, said in his memo that the startup "did not discriminate against Whitney because of her age or gender" and takes gender equality very seriously.

Rosette Pambakian, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based Tinder, declined to comment beyond Mr. Rad's memo.

Tinder was hatched two years ago during a hack-a-thon at an incubator backed by billionaire Barry Diller's IAC. Though Ms. Wolfe was with the company from the onset and had been recognized as a co-founder, Mr. Rad stripped her of the title when she was 24, according to her complaint.

Ms. Wolfe said in her lawsuit that she was subjected to sexist comments, e-mails and text messages from Chief Marketing Officer Mr. Mateen, 28, and that her complaints were ignored by Mr. Rad. She said she was forced to resign and is seeking compensatory damages including back pay and equity.

Mr. Mateen was suspended upon the receipt of Ms. Wolfe's allegations, pending an ongoing internal investigation, said Matthew Traub, a spokesman for IAC.

"Through that process, it has become clear that Mr. Mateen sent private messages to Ms. Wolfe containing inappropriate content," Mr. Traub said in an e-mail. "We unequivocally condemn these messages, but believe that Ms. Wolfe's allegations with respect to Tinder and its management are unfounded."

Mr. Mateen didn't respond to an e-mail sent to his work address seeking comment on Wolfe's lawsuit.

The allegations could have an impact on IAC's plans for Tinder, according to Mr. Kessler.

Tinder is part of IAC's Match Group, a business segment that was separated into its own unit in December, potentially setting the stage for a spinoff of the dating services.

"Given what's going on at Tinder, I would assume that probably would cause IAC and Match to think a little bit longer and harder about pursuing that at this juncture," Mr. Kessler said.

Even as the technology industry's glass ceiling is being shattered by high-profile executives like Facebook Inc.'s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, complaints about gender equality persist.

Technology companies Google and Facebook have recently acknowledged that women make up 30% and 31% of their workforces, respectively, ramping up pressure on Silicon Valley to hire more women and minorities.

Facebook and Twitter were criticized leading up to their initial public offerings for not having any female directors, and 74% of U.S. workers in computer and mathematical occupations last year were men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel apologized in May for profanity-laced e-mails he sent during his fraternity days at Stanford University that celebrated getting drunk and convincing sorority women to perform sexual acts.

In March 2013, Adria Richards received threats of violence and was fired from her software job at startup SendGrid Inc. after she posted an image online of male programmers she accused of making inappropriate innuendos at a programming event in Santa Clara, Calif. Critics said Ms. Richards mishandled the offense and defenders said her dismissal will discourage standing up to misconduct.

Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, sued the venture-capital firm in 2012 alleging it treated female employees unfairly by promoting and compensating them less than men. She said she faced retaliation after she complained about sexual harassment. Kleiner, which tried unsuccessfully to move Ms. Pao's claims to arbitration, has denied the allegations.

"Unfortunately, it seems like these types of issues have surfaced at a number of technology companies and startups over the years," Mr. Kessler said.

--Bloomberg News

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