Technology and Women: Finding Agency Through Dating Apps

Vidya Madhavan, Founder and CEO, Schmooze

What remains common about the tech and the dating scene is their assumption of men as the active participants and women as the passive receivers in the play. This manifests in their (un)holy union—dating apps, which further promote heteronormative expectations of society. With the introduction of women led dating apps, Vidya Madhavan, Founder and CEO of Schmooze, helps us explore if technology, when inclusive, can help subvert dominant discourses and empower women with agency. 


00.00 - Madhuleen:

How does the diversity in the product team define the product?

Does having more women in tech help us solve the gender biases in tech products?

Can inclusive technology lead to an inclusive society?

Hi, I’m Madhuleen, representing ISB’s Management ReThink- an online management practice journal, published quarterly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In this session, we will explore the peculiar relationship between women, tech, and dating apps with an engineer by education and entrepreneur by passion, the co-founder of the unique meme-based dating app, Schmooze, Ms. Vidya Madhavan.

00:44 - Madhuleen

Welcome, Vidya! We are so excited to have you here with us today.

00:49 - Vidya

Thanks, Madhuleen. Very nice to be here.

00:52 - Madhuleen

So, as we know that the tech industry is a male-dominated space. What changes do you see in the industry that you feel will help provide an inclusive platform to women in the tech industry?

01:05 - Vidya

Yeah. So, I think there are lots of changes happening simultaneously as we speak. The first is of course, the hope that there are more women in STEM in general, and I think across countries there is some effort to kind of promote it. Especially as we speak of India also, there are some efforts going on to promote more women in STEM, which is obviously a feeder to the technology industry as a whole. And obviously, I continue to believe that every time we talk about, you know, any sort of minority groups and what helps them perform better, do better, overall, I feel that role modelling plays a very important role in that. And I think as more and more women enter the workforce in the technology industry, every one person is gonna be like, now creating or inspiring hundreds of more women to enter the workforce similarly. So, I think role modelling will play a very important role and that's actually already happening as we speak.

The other thing that I find very interesting is, though not directly, you know, in the tech industry as an engineer, there are lots of managerial roles also in the tech industry, like, let's talk about product as an important vertical or let's talk about design as an important vertical. And again, even for women in management, again a feeder, top of the funnel sort of a problem, but with business schools having, I mean, with more women going to business schools, that is also a path which is increasingly seeing more women. Obviously, we won't see impact of all of this in the short run, but over the next five or ten years the numbers will start making sense and be more pronounced. Where I think as a whole the tech industry will start seeing more diversity as a whole, and not just be super male-dominated as it used to be or is as it is right now.

3:30 - Madhuleen.

You make a very interesting point there! The tech industry is not just limited to the quintessentially tech roles, but you also have the managerial and the design verticals. So, there has been some research that shows that there is gender disparity, not just in the industry, but you also see these particular biases being emulated in the technology itself. Do you think having women at the helm of the technology, across verticals, the product changes, and the way that technology interacts with women also changes?

04:04 - Vidya

Yeah, absolutely! I think that's a great question. And I'm also so excited to answer this, just given a session we had at the Schmooze office yesterday, where by design we had, you know, we had a group discussion where we had three men and three women and all of us discussing our perspectives on a particular video of Schmooze. And it was so interesting to see that the points noted by women, what we thought of the video, was very different from what the men thought about the video, and how we would change it, what the implications of those were. So, to like getting back to your question, I think there are two things playing around here. Fundamentally, there is a conscious way of solving problems and an unconscious style, unconscious problem-solving approach. And when we talk about having more women or just generally being more gender inclusive, or inclusive across so many different facets, I think the unconscious way of problem-solving, unconscious biases are kind of evened out in a way. And, like yesterday, we just realized this in our own team, and we had like just this group call where we had three men and three women like how fundamentally different, we were. And we were not even thinking about Schmooze at the centre of the problem that we were solving for. And that's where I wanted to create that distinction between conscious problem solving, consciously being more inclusive, consciously trying to be empathetic, trying to put yourself in the shoes of every single user, how many different types of people you see, so on and so forth. And then comes the unconscious thing, which I feel is the larger part of how each of us as decision makers just fundamentally interact with things or, you know, design products because like no matter how much you know, no matter how many posters you put up in an office, no matter how many like guidelines you have for everyone working at a company, where you know, you can keep saying that—Hey, you're not designing for yourself, you're designing for, something for like, millions of people who might be different from you, and so on and so forth. Unconsciously, there is a lot that's going on in every individual's mind, which is fundamentally layered by their share of experiences, their share of observations and I think as a result, like definitely having more women—not only in leadership roles but having more women and being just generally more gender inclusive across roles helps in bringing that different perspective, which is definitely needed as you try to solve for the masses. If you're obviously designing, you know, male formal wear, then you may or may not need all sorts of perspectives then. But when you're designing technology products, the intent of which mostly is to have millions of users, all across the Earth, to be using it, it becomes very important to understand how 50% of the population thinks and would interact with those products and, you know, design something which is a lot more equitable.

7:32 - Madhuleen

You are absolutely right! Keeping in mind the conscious and unconscious biases we all have, having a more inclusive workforce at every stage of a product’s growth will definitely make a difference in the final product and solution that we generate.

So, narrowing down our discussion a little and moving on to dating apps. Dating is another arena that assumes and expects a lack of agency from women. Do you think dating apps, another industry dominated by men, also emulates the heteronormative discourses around gender, dictating how women should behave and interact?

08:09 - Vidya

Yeah. So, it's an interesting question, and an investor that I had met in year ago had told me this, he said, I mean, without going into details, but he said he had met the founder of a very famous … now very famous dating company. And he said one of the biggest problems with dating apps and dating companies is that most of them are built by men. And not just built or founded by men, but has very male, I mean, top-down team of only having men which has created a set of similar products, each of them forgetting to solve problems for almost 50% of the population, which is also going to be on the product. So, I think, dating apps, definitely have been very skewed for a really long time. In fact, I think we started talking about women and men right at the beginning of the conversation. But, you know, even as you talk about just generally being more gender inclusive. If you talk about the LGBTQ community. They've been kind of left alone by many of the mainstream dating products for a really long time. And you know, like when we launched Schmooze, we saw that 20% of our user base came from the LGBTQ community. And lots of like we almost started seeing a very strong organic growth amongst the Community. And talking to some people I realized, you know, they were very small changes that we had made as compared to the other apps in our initial days. Like having pronouns, making it one of the most highlighted things on your profile, and things like that, which don't call for a massive change but just signal the fact that, hey, this product is for everyone. And that is something that we've obviously had found lacking for a really long time in the industry. Even folks in the Schmooze team constantly complain about the lack of how products just don't seem to be designed for women overall in the dating space.

10:35 - Madhuleen

In recent years, though, we have seen more women enter the tech space and especially the dating scene as well. So, with Bumble being specifically directed towards having more agency for women and Schmooze as well, is working towards more gender inclusivity on the whole.
How do you see these platforms empowering women or empowering across genders and affording them agency in the dating life, and specifically through technology?

11:08 - Vidya

Yeah. So, one thing that I've come to learn over the last couple of years running Schmooze is, the first thing that defines behaviour in the platform, be it Schmooze, or Bumble, or Hinge, or any of these different products, is the narrative around it. Like if I look at Bumble and Tinder, they look virtually the same, to the exception of, you know, the colour code and stuff like that. Where Bumble has this very prominent feature which says, like, woman makes the first move and that's one thing that Tinder fundamentally lacks. But if you look at the use case of both the platforms, the type of people coming in, the kind of interactions that someone has, they're so different. Like you would ... it is very hard to say that if you logically break down two products, the difference between one feature can cost so much of a difference between two products. So, I've come to realize that there is a lot to say about the narrative that you build around the particular product that creates a lot of self-selection in terms of the people coming to a platform. And even the same people behave very differently, exhibit different behaviours across different platforms because there is that unsaid rule of, hey, this is how you behave on a particular product because this is what this thing stands for. And that's something again like at Schmooze, we've been seeing nearly … right from our day one. The more we talk to our users, we hear things like, ‘Oh you know, on Schmooze we feel that people have a personality’, ‘They're very different from the boring interactions we've had on other dating apps’, and etcetera, etcetera. But then like you know, if you think about it, how can people be different? Like, if you look at dating app statistics, at least in the US, on an average, no one has one dating app on their phone. People have nearly two to three dating apps on their phones. Which means that someone who's using Schmooze is probably also using Bumble, is probably also using some other dating app. And what is different here is what Schmooze more stands for. At Schmooze we say, ‘Laugh your way to love’. So, I think when we say that or when you say that, ‘Hey, this is humour first’ or ‘Find someone who's your kind of funny’. We've kind of let the door open for you to exhibit your personality. People are not different. The expectation or the rules of the game on Schmooze are different. Which is why people feel a lot more open— having those conversations, exhibiting their personality on a product like Schmooze than maybe in some other places. So, I think like just going back to your question and this is coming off from a very recent LinkedIn message that I had from a Schmooze user. This person was a student at Stanford. And this guy had a very unsuccessful run on all the other dating apps. This guy was very much into dark humour and stuff, so you can imagine the kind of dates he was having. And he said, he would meet someone for the first date but never really go into, you know, a second or a third date. Like it just never happened. And he met this girl on Schmooze. They had a good chat about dark humour. So, the first, second, third, and fourth dates are all kind of similar kind of funny. And I mean, they are now dating.

So, I think what I'm going back to is the choice, the option of expressing certain aspects of your personality, the kind of rules of how do you behave on a platform is really dictated by the narrative. When you say, like, hey, women make the first move or, you know, this is how the product is, then there is that level of self-selection rule of how do you behave on this app which starts becoming different for different types of products. And yeah, I think that is something that definitely sets different products apart. And it's not just, you know, the design or the features or the colours or the look or feel. It's a lot more of the words and the positioning and the story behind these products, which say what is okay and what is not okay on a platform. And I think that's definitely changing with more women or with more diverse people leading companies like a dating product.

16:02 - Madhuleen:

Interesting! You talked about the narrative behind the product influencing the consumer behaviour.  How much do you think the regional influences shape the narrative aimed by the product, especially in the Indian context. I know Schmooze is not in India yet, I hope you plan on launching here soon. But how do you view the dating app market here and what role can these apps play in the experience of women while placed in the cultural environment of India?

16:34 - Vidya:

Very, very interesting question. So, firstly, I think, so Schmooze does have plans to launch in India. We do feel that there is a very strong meme culture in India, hands down. And we do have our early sign-up forms so you can find our link lease on our profiles and sign up for it if you're excited.

The thinking about Schmooze in context of India has kind of been a revelation for us. Because, while we constantly think about how do we … I mean, a dating product is a two-sided marketplace and while we constantly think about how do we make the product more equitable for both sides in US, we realized that when we start thinking about India, it adds a lot more layers. For example, designing Schmooze in US has included us thinking constantly about our positioning. What are we really saying? How are we communicating? And that kind of, as I said in the … to your previous question, right, like it kind of sets the narrative, and the narrative defines the rules of the game for how do you behave on a particular product, which then sets the tone for what goes on, as a behaviour. But the moment we started thinking about India, we realized, and this was even coming from our own team that women fundamentally lack agency a lot more in India than obviously in US. And male behaviour, I mean, I won't say it's because of the number of men we have, because I think globally, we see a more equitable ratio only. But for some reason like the way men behave on different platforms, the way they enormously flock to dating products just makes women want to, you know, just stand back and say like, ‘hey,  I'm not up for this’, like, ‘this is not what I want’, ‘not on this dating app also’, like, ‘not here too’ because that this is what I experience on a daily life on a day-to-day basis. So, we've had to think a lot more. In fact, even when we think about Schmooze launch in India, we've been through discussions where we think about, hey, does making our product like very premium product very … like, increase the bar to get in from day one. Does that kind of change how the product is going to be for women? Or is it like going through a very invite only route going to change how Schmooze is perceived in the initial days and then obviously hoping for that behaviour to kind of trickle down. Is it more about the go to market strategy like where do we go? What type of people do we attract in the initial days, change it. But I'm not going to lie, we have spent way more time thinking about how to make the platform equitable for men and women the moment we started thinking about Schmooze in India than we had in our entire journey, thinking about Schmooze in US and that definitely says something about the cultural context. It definitely says something about the way society functions. It definitely has a lot to say about the lack of agency or very less agency that women generally have in the Indian society and how it has just been passed on that way. And we are hoping to change that. And we are also hoping that more and more tech products come and change that for women in India.

20:42 - Madhuleen

Those were some truly intriguing insights into the issue.

As Vidya said, our behaviour as consumers is influenced by the narrative generated around a product. These narratives are in turn a reflection of the people behind the product. Therefore, with more women entering the tech industry in general and the dating app space, in particular, we should hope to witness a positive change in the way women engage with technology and with the world through it.

Thank you so much for joining us, Vidya. It was truly wonderful to have you here with us today.

21:18 - Vidya

Thanks, Madhuleen. It was a pleasure joining you for the podcast and hope you have a great day.

21:26 - Madhuleen

Thank you.

Vidya Madhavan, Founder and CEO, Schmooze

Vidya Madhavan is the Founder and CEO of Schmooze, the world’s first meme-based dating app, backed by leading Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Currently based out of New York, Vidya is an alumnus of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani. Schmooze and Vidya have been covered by Stephen Colbert on The Late Show in addition to TechCrunch, Nasdaq, Los Angeles Times, and over hundred other media outlets. Prior to her MBA at Stanford, Vidya launched and scaled 1mgLabs (now a Tata company). She has also been an adviser for tech startups on growth as a consultant with McKinsey.

The idea of ISB Management ReThink was born out of the impending need to revisit and redefine the time-tested tenets of management, and at the same time, identify how they can still hold on to their relevance in contemporary times. With the ever-changing dynamics of management philosophies, and the associated classroom teaching methodology, it is about time to readjust the focus by shaking the fundamentals, breaking myths and bringing about the change necessary to survive in this cut-throat era of stiff competition.