SAN FRANCISCO — Tinder became a popular hookup app because women love to use it.
But the culture inside the Los Angeles start-up was not friendly to women, according to explosive charges made in a lawsuit filed by a former senior executive.
Whitney Wolfe, the former vice president of marketing, alleges in the suit that she was subjected to a pattern of sexist behavior. IAC, which holds a majority stake in Tinder, said her charges are "unfounded."
Those charges are just the latest in a growing wave of lawsuits and criticism about sexism in the mostly male technology industry.
In recent weeks, Google, Facebook and other major technology companies have released diversity statistics that show that women make up less than a third of their staffs.
But it's not just that men vastly outnumber women in the ranks and in the leadership of these companies.
Women say they are subjected to sexist attitudes starting in computer science classes. Those attitudes persist throughout their careers as they are passed over for jobs and promotions.
Some women end up leaving technology to pursue other fields. And fewer women are studying computer science.
Many people blame technology's growing gender gap on the industry's "brogrammer" culture — a hybrid of "bro" and "programmer" that describes the frat-house attitudes and behavior of some male engineers and entrepreneurs.
"Silicon Valley has gotten away with this frat-boy behavior for too long," said Stanford University fellow Vivek Wadhwa, author of the upcoming book Innovating Women. "This is impacting Silicon Valley's ability to innovate and grow. The valley needs to do this in its own self interest. Including more women and minorities will help the technology industry better understand its customers and build better technologies."
It's an awkward predicament for the tech industry, which prides itself on being a meritocracy where anyone — regardless of gender or race — with ambition, hard work and a good idea can make it.
But a rash of high-profile incidents is shining a bright light on what has long been an uncomfortable reality: Women here say they routinely deal with sexism on the job.
Snapchat's 23-year-old CEO Evan Spiegel had to apologize in May for explicit e-mails he sent during his fraternity days at Stanford University, which included convincing sorority women to perform sexual acts and even drunkenly urinating on one woman in bed with him.
Spiegel's Los Angeles-based company, which got its start in 2011 in his fraternity house, runs a popular messaging service. Last year, Snapchat turned down a buyout offer from Facebook for about $3 billion.
"I have no excuse," Spiegel said when the e-mails surfaced. "I was jerk to have written (the e-mails). They in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women."
GitHub co-founder and President Tom Preston-Werner resigned in April after a company investigation into allegations of gender-based harassment. In March, Julie Ann Horvath, one of GitHub's engineers, resigned from the company and went public with her claims that GitHub had created a hostile work environment for women. GitHub and Preston-Werner have disputed her claims.
Allegations of discrimination have even hit one of Silicon Valley's best-known venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. A former partner, Ellen Pao, is suing the firm, citing sexual discrimination. They dispute the charges.
Wolfe, the former Tinder vice president, claimed in her lawsuit, which was filed Monday, that Tinder took away her title because having a female co-founder would make the company "seem like a joke." She also said she was called a "whore" at a party.
IAC rejected Wolfe's claims of harassment and discrimination, but said it had suspended Justin Mateen, co-founder and chief marketing officer, during an internal investigation.
Recent reports about the shortage of women in Silicon Valley will draw attention to the Tinder lawsuit, said crisis management specialist Dan Hill.
"Tinder will likely be forced to respond to the allegations on a larger stage than they originally expected, thanks to increasing dialogue about the brogrammer culture in the sector," said Hill, president of Ervin Hill Strategy in Washington, D.C.
Women in Silicon Valley say they're pleased the issue is getting attention. They are calling on Silicon Valley to do something about it.
"It is the responsibility of venture capitalists, investors, executives and everyone on down to take responsibility for the start-up culture they are creating," said Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee and author of The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network. "Unfortunately we are seeing a lack of accountability that allows abusive, unprofessional behavior to thrive."