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Whitney Wolfe Herd who heads up Bumble speaks during the TIME 100 Summit in New York, April 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Powerful women heading up dating apps are framed as young and sexy

People are swiping on dating apps in record numbers and roughly half of these individuals identify as women, which may be the reason why the dating app industry recently assigned the top leadership roles to women.

Indeed, this past year, the most powerful dating apps in the world — Bumble and Tinder — were both run by women. Whitney Wolfe Herd is at Bumble while Renate Nyborg was running Tinder.

As scholars who write about dating apps like Bumble and dating and feminism, we were interested to see how journalists reported on these two women leading the male-dominated, highly lucrative online dating industry and we wanted to compare that coverage with how the CEOs represented themselves on social media.

We looked at last year’s top 50 news stories for each woman that came up in search results. We found a pattern of sexist and patronizing coverage. We noted often repeated descriptors for the leaders and created three categories to describe them: “young tycoon,” “feminist revenge” and “sexy poster child.”

We also did a Google Image search and looked at the top 100 results for each CEO to see how a Google search represented these leaders. What we saw were visually distinct styles intricately tied to each brand.

In contrast, we observed more diverse and interesting accounts of gender and leadership in the women’s personal media spaces. These stories include notions of motherhood, inclusivity and equity.

It seems that significant tensions exist between news representations of women leaders in tech versus how they represent themselves.

The Bumble sensation

Both CEOs are depicted in news stories through the lens of sexism and sensationalism. In the case of Whitney Wolfe Herd, her youth as well as her scandalous past with Tinder are often highlighted.

Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra, right, stands with Bumble founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd during the launch party for Bumble in New Delhi, India in 2018. (AP Photo/Pallav Paliwal)

Wolfe Herd launched the feminist dating app Bumble in 2014, after leaving Tinder. She became the youngest self-made female billionaire. She’s also the youngest woman CEO to take a company public in the United States.

Yet mainstream news and pop culture outlets focus on her controversial past with Tinder and the sexual discrimination suit she filed prior to leaving Tinder.

The language of competition, divisiveness and feminist backlash runs through many of these articles. Bumble is framed as part of her larger feminist agenda that is set on revenge against the tech bros who dominate the dating app industry.

Renate Nyborg let go from Tinder

Renate Nyborg’s ascent to the top of Tinder in 2021 made headlines primarily in financial and economic publications. Most stories highlight that she is Tinder’s first female CEO and that she is a “poster-child” for the company since she met her husband on the app. An article in Fortune magazine calls her “the ultimate testament to Tinder’s ability to create healthy, long-term relationships.”

Other stories reflect optimism about Nyborg’s potential to grow the app due to previous start-up experience. Tinder is positioned as the brand and most stories focus on Nyborg’s ability to advance the company.

Yet after less than a year, she was quietly released from her position this August and the impact of her brief reign within the tech industry has been glossed over.

During her tenure, Tinder won multiple awards, including Best CEO for Diversity, and it was named one of the most innovative companies of 2022 by Fast Company.

Given the importance of diversity and innovation in the tech industry, her dismissal is curious if growth in these areas was a corporate priority. It may be linked with the illusionary nature of empowerment within various aspects of the dating app industry and Tinder’s lingering identity as a platform associated with hook-ups and misogyny.

Social media representations

Compared to the limited and problematic portrayals of the CEOs in the news media, the women employ more diverse and personalized notions of gender and leadership on their social media platforms.

Wolfe Herd showcases her identity as Bumble CEO on her social media accounts, on Instagram especially and Twitter less so. She also flags her role as a mother who runs a company that’s central to her larger feminist mission.

Her narrative of female empowerment reminiscent of the “girl boss” is prevalent. She constructs herself as the brand, with Bumble and its “women make the first move” philosophy forming part of a larger feminist mission to revolutionize modern courtship.

Nyborg curates her leadership persona primarily on professional platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, and actively posts about leadership, tech blogs and gender diversity. She also highlights her excitement about leading the company.

Her social media accounts emphasize a broad framing of inclusivity to effect change. On her last day at Tinder, Nyborg shared a post on LinkedIn to highlight her accomplishments, focusing on elevating women’s safety and inclusion at her former company.

Fashion and colour

Fashion and colour are used strategically both in the news stories and also how these women style themselves as powerful female executives performing important leadership roles.

Journalist Alexis Grenell, writing in The Nation, suggests that we have been conditioned to visually associate executive power with male fashion, namely the suit and tie. She writes: “if we don’t note how women are redefining what executive power looks like … it’ll remain de facto male”.

Bumble is synonymous with a sunny shade of yellow, which marks the company brand and is widely featured in Whitney Wolfe Herd’s posts. Herd uses images that project a “wholesome, girl next door” vibe with light lipsticks and muted, college-inspired clothing.

The Tinder flame logo is red, and this colour dominates Renate Nyborg’s images in news and her own media stories. She usually wears bold red lipstick to match her red outfits, signaling strength.

When it comes to matching fashion to corporate brands, the meanings associated with certain colours can have unintentional consequences for leaders. Whereas yellow may boost Wolfe Herd’s persona through positive notions of happiness and creativity, associations with red could be interpreted as sexual and aggressive for Nyborg.

Corporate culture remains male-driven

Nyborg’s departure from Tinder suggests that it’s still hard for women to maintain high level executive positions in the tech industry, even when they’re the CEO.

Initial reflections of the news coverage show a persistent devaluing of women’s contributions in tech leadership

We need more stories about how women are challenging and changing male-driven corporate culture.

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