Leap year sexism: Should women 'run the show' in dating? Apps put it to test

Traditionally, a leap year encourages women to propose marriage, Sadie Hawkins-style. But even now, many female app users don't feel safe making the first move. Women-first apps are trying to fix that.

On Feb. 29, women are supposed to call the shots.

In Celtic tradition, ladies get to propose during leap years, a proto-"Sadie Hawkins" custom that may strike singles today as unnecessary. Women asking men, whether for coffee or marriage, shouldn't be such a big deal 80 years after the Lil' Abner comic's Hekzebiah Hawkins set his daughter Sadie loose to literally chase down the town's bachelors.

But ask most dating app-using women if feminism and technology have done much to level the romantic playing field, and answers are decidedly mixed. Some 42 percent have received unwelcome comments and photos online, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center, and asking a guy out is still not the norm. One study of undergrads, for example, found that 93 percent of women preferred to be asked, while 83 percent of men preferred to do the asking.

"In every other facet of a young woman's life, we are owning our worlds in a very independent way," Bumble co-founder Whitney Wolfe told the BBC. "We work, we create, we support ourselves, and it's encouraged to do so. The only thing that hasn't caught up to that is how we date."

Ms. Wolfe is leading a new wave of app developers "changing the rules of the game," as Bumble's tagline promises, to help the Internet deliver on one of its less successful possibilities: to improve dating not just through quantity, but quality. And while endless yes-or-no swiping on potential dates might seem like a level playing field, these women are highlighting the ways older apps are still built with men in mind — and building "women first" sites that let them initiate contact on their own terms.

For Wolfe, it's personal. In 2012, she co-founded Tinder, the original "swiping" app whose roughly 50 million users love to hate it. But she later sued the company for sexual harassment after she says a relationship with another founder turned abusive.

In her next app, Wolfe said, she wanted to promote responsibility. And that meant putting women first.

For straight Bumble users, men and women can both scroll through brief bios and photos and pick dates they're interested. Only after a match is made can someone reach out, though, and that "someone" has to be a woman.

It's meant to not just be feminist, but effective. "60 percent of matches on Bumble are turning into conversations," Wolfe told Business Insider, in contrast to a typical dating app landscape where thousands of potential dates tend to become dozens of empty chats. A 24-hour limit on women's chance to make the first move spurs users into action, versus typical lag times of two weeks per date.

Bumble's critics contend that while it may cut down on creepy first messages, it's still basically Tinder, and making women talk first can mean more extra work than real power.

At Siren, an app launched in 2014, the all-female leadership team is unapologetic about their belief that women date differently: "personality first," for both safety and compatibility. Users respond to open-ended questions each day, and if someone's wit or charm catches a female user's eye, she can choose how much info to reveal to him: bio, interests, photos.

Potential investors' hesitation just highlighted the problem Siren was trying to fix, co-founder Susie Lee told Marie Claire. Several said "women have always been the hunted and men have always been the hunter," or assumed that women who didn't want to throw their pictures online immediately must have something to hide.

"Most of the deep pockets in Silicon Valley are married men over 40. They never experienced the world of dating as it is now – with mobile text at the center," she says.

In the end, that approach may not be so revolutionary: it's similar to real life, Ms. Lee has argued. Men tend to make the "risky initiatives," as Loyola Marymount University psychologist Dr. Michael Mills has argued: verbal and physical invitations with pretty clear intent. Women, meanwhile, often try to set the stage with more subtle "proceptive behaviors," shows of interest that aren't as unambiguous, a difference he attributes to the sexes' different needs for paternal confidence. (In a nutshell, society considers it riskier for females to seem eager for romantic advances, since men can't be sure who's fathered a child.)

But women want to be sure the men on the receiving end of those "proceptive behaviors" aren't creeps, and Bumble, Siren, and a slew of other sites — including "Yelp for Men" Lulu, question-first Willow, and invite-only Wyldfire — are trying to make sure that's the case. 

"We are two guys," Wyldfire co-founder Brian Freeman told Forbes. "But I think we picked up early on that in the world of dating, women, in essence, run the show."

With women-first apps, that may come closer to the truth.

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