Dating Is Fundamentally Unbalanced, Meet The Woman Who’s Leveling The Playing Field
The Debrief: Whitney Wolfe set out to revolutionise online dating with her app Bumble, the mantra of which is ‘be nice or leave’. Now she's set her sights on changing the world of work...
I’m stood on a baking-hot balcony of a hotel suite in Austin, Texas, with Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe. There’s something we need to get out of the way before our interview can begin, however – watching the solar eclipse taking place across the US that afternoon. ‘Was that it?’ we both say as it’s disappointingly over before we realise anything has actually happened.
Luckily Bumble is less of a flash-in-the-pan. Wolfe, who is 28, founded it in 2014 and is now reportedly worth a cool $250m. The premise is simple – unlike its rival apps, namely Tinder and Happn, female users speak first and have 24 hours to do so before the match disappears. There are around 18m users worldwide, with numbers rising daily, and 50% of users are aged 23-29 – Wolfe also says there’s pretty much an even male/female split in terms of their user base. Through her app, Wolfe hopes to ‘change the future of dating’. ‘I think women are at a disadvantage when it comes to dating and connecting at large, and society has not allowed us to be perceived as equals. It was time that we reclaimed that power and put it in the hands of women,’ she says.
She grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah – a large Mormon area. I can’t help but wonder what the dating scene is like there. ‘The city is very conservative, but at the same time, it’s similar to elsewhere. In Salt Lake men are in control and the whole antiquated mindset really exists there.’
By the ‘antiquated mindset’ she’s referring to her belief that women are ‘on the back foot with dating in general, not just with apps.’ ‘I just think dating offline has been a disaster, always. It’s really hard for women – we aren’t set up to be in control and society places so much of an expectation on men to be all ‘macho’ and for women to be ‘damsels in distress’ and that’s not true, accurate, or healthy,’ she tells me.
Wolfe is getting married to her Texan fiancé Michael this month in Positano, a town on Italy’s Amalfi coast. She met him offline, snow-skiing in Aspen. Has she ever used dating apps herself? ‘No, but if I had created it [Bumble] when I was single, I would use it for sure,’ she says. ‘I’ve used it for other things – I’ve hired from it, networked and found friends [Bumble BFF, an offshoot of the app, allows you to form platonic relationships]. It’s great that you can connect with other women for all sorts of different things.’
Her first foray into the dating app world was as one of the co-founders of Tinder. She also worked as the Vice President of Marketing there and was in a relationship with one of her fellow co-founders, Justin Mateen. But their break up turned ugly, and Wolfe was stripped of her title and forced out of the company, with a string of texts going public and laying bare Mateen’s sexual harassment. They settled out of court for a reported $1m, and Wolfe isn’t allowed to speak about it. Not that she wants to either – when I bring up Tinder in the context of how most of my UK-based friends on dating apps say men just swipe and don’t speak first, she wryly responds with ‘well, at Bumble we don’t have that problem because women go first’ and quickly changes the subject.
After her experience at Tinder, she wanted to launch a female-only app to encourage ‘compliments and good behaviour’ called Merci but was approached by Badoo founder and Russian entrepreneur Andrey Andreev who persuaded her to stay in the dating market. Bumble was born, and the rest was history.
‘The idea of going first is simple, but it’s incredibly important because the dynamics right now suggest that men should always be the aggressor,’ she explains. ‘They’re told to go after the woman and make it happen, basically be hyper-aggressive, whereas women are trained to be demure and say no and play hard to get. That just aggravates men and it translates into really bad behaviour, so you’ve just set both parties up for a disaster. This is about evening the playing field and it’s more of an empowered approach.’
One of Bumble’s mantras is ‘be nice or leave’. Last year, a man was publicly shamed for sending a sexist message to a woman he was talking to. Dick pics and men taking shirtless selfies are banned, and they’ve recently launched a photo verification system to combat catfishing. Wolfe also says the 24-hour response rate can help combat ghosting, and although this won’t stop people doing that to each other once they’ve actually been on dates, Wolfe hopes it will change people’s perceptions to it. ‘We’re looking into it more at the moment,’ she adds. ‘We basically focus on all the problems with dating in society and try to figure out the ways to fix them.’
Bumble has been branded a ‘feminist’ app, and it clearly seems that way to me. Does Wolfe agree? ‘We do call Bumble that – feminism is really equality and, although some might argue because women make the first move it’s not equal, I would say that men have always had an advantage and we’re making it level.’ But is she a feminist herself? ‘To be honest, at first I really didn’t understand feminism,’ she admits. ‘I was behaving in a way that seemed right to me and I placed what feminism meant after the fact. I didn’t wake up one morning, find the definition of feminism and build an app around that.’
Bumble HQ is situated in the north of Austin. It’s a city Wolfe picked because ‘it just fitted in with my lifestyle – my friends and family were all here’, but it’s also a place where a lot of tech startups are building their headquarters thanks to cheaper land and better rates of tax. The exterior of the Bumble office, known as ‘the Hive’ is painted in the app’s bright yellow, with flashes of millennial pink on the inside. There are slogans everywhere – ‘bee kind’, ‘you’re a queen bee’, and of course their most important mantra ‘make the first move’, and comfy, colourful break-out areas. It’s a far cry from the depressing, beige open-plan places most of us work at every day.
There are 30 employees there, and Wolfe says the office is ‘85% women’. Bumble staff say it’s an empowering workplace – apparently, they can work flexible hours as long as they get the work done, and there’s a pump room for breastfeeding colleagues – indicating that Wolfe really has, first and foremost, created a female-friendly space. Only 17% of employees in the tech sector are women, according to a recent study, and now Wolfe’s attention has changed to empowering women in the workplace as well as in the dating world.
‘We don’t have an equal footing to men in the technology sector – I just don’t think we’re there yet,’ she says. ‘But we are making strides, and I hope with Bumble Bizz (the networking app they are launching for female professionals later this month) we can help make a difference.’ On Bizz, women will match with networks and potential employers and, like with Bumble, make the first move if they see something that interests them. ‘We know some men have used LinkedIn to solicit women, which is why we want women to go first,’ she adds. There is certainly as big a problem with sexism at work as there is in dating. Last year a research collaboration between the TUC and Everyday Sexism found that more than half of women had experienced sexual harassment at work.
Although encouraging women to make the first move, and the work Bumble have done with removing dick pics and reducing ghosting is obviously a good thing, isn’t there an onus on men to police their own behaviour too? ‘Of course,’ she says. So what would she recommend? Wolfe and her Head of Brand, Alex Williamson believe men need to ‘treat every woman you meet like she’s your best female friend.’ ‘Imagine that somebody you respect and admire is in the room with you – and act that way,’ they say.
‘The problem is that with somebody on a phone you can treat them worse than in real life, by hiding behind usernames online dating is fraught,’ Wolfe says. ‘I wanted to find a way to create online accountability. In the real world, you hold each other to certain standards for the most part, and I really saw a huge gap in the way that takes place digitally, there's not enough accountability online. I saw a speech by Jeff Bezos [the CEO of Amazon] where he said that in the early days he had nasty, unconstructive feedback emails, but once he made sure people couldn’t email unless their real name and photo was attached the nature of the messages would change. At Bumble, we’ve put an emphasis on creating many ways to make you hold yourself accountable.
Wolfe and her Bumble colleagues say that men ‘prefer the app’s approach’. ‘Based on feedback we’ve had many men have wanted something like this but they’ve not had the opportunity,’ she says. ‘They like how much of an ease it introduces, feel proud of women for making the first move and they are really looking for an equal counterpart.’ She adds that the typical Bumble user is ‘open-minded, forward-thinking and a real believer in equality,’ and that she feels she’s created ‘a place where the good guys can go’.
So, finally, if you’re using Bumble, what’s the best way to tailor your profile to find your perfect match. ‘It sounds corny, but be yourself as much as possible,’ Wolfe says. ‘Don’t hide behind what you think people want to see. Use as many solo photos as you can, you can also introduce group pics but make sure they’re distinguishable so people know who you are. Show your hobbies – you doing activities or spending time with your family. Just express your personality as much as you can.’
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