This blog was coauthored with Maiya Moncino, a research associate at the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the world of cryptocurrency, women are shockingly underrepresented, even compared to the overwhelmingly male tech sector as a whole. According to Google Analytics data as of June 2018, 91.2 percent of individuals engaged in the bitcoin community are men.
Cryptocurrencies are digital assets that are secured by cryptography and registered on a public blockchain. A blockchain is a distributed ledger that records transactions publicly and securely. Because it is distributed, it is not managed by a centralized entity, such as a bank or technology company. Blockchain technology eliminates the middleman, allowing transactions to occur directly between two people. The most prominent cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, have focused on payments, but blockchain technology can be used to facilitate computation, storage, and many other cases. This technology has the potential to revolutionize many elements of our lives, in finance and beyond, though some are skeptical of its long-term viability.
So far, women have played only a minor role in shaping the applications of blockchain technology. According to an international Quartz survey that considered 378 venture-backed cryptocurrency startups founded between 2012 and 2018, only 8.5 percent were founded or co-founded by a woman. In the tech sector as a whole, twice as many startups have a woman on the founding team—still low, at 17.7 percent, but much better than in cryptocurrencies.
A New York Times article about “blockchain bros” noted that the official conference party for the North American Bitcoin Conference in January 2018 took place at a Miami strip club. Of the 87 speakers at the event, only three were female. Only after receiving complaints about the gender imbalance, the conference organizer, Moe Levin, replaced two male speakers with two female speakers. “It just coincidentally happened that there were more men than women speakers,” said Levin. “It’s not intentional not to include them. It’s just we don’t have time to include them.” The previous year, the conference had featured skimpily clad models painted gold and bearing Bitcoin logos.
Especially in the context of the #MeToo movement, and with a spotlight on gender disparity in tech as a whole, the underrepresentation of women in cryptocurrencies is attracting attention. Groups like Women in Blockchain are raising awareness about the importance of diversity in the industry. In April 2018, the startup Mogul hosted a “Women in Crypto” event. Alexia Bonatsos, a female venture capitalist, tweeted: “Women, consider crypto. Otherwise the men are going to get all the wealth, again.”
Some responses to the gender disparity have themselves been harmful. “Recently, I was at a summit where there was a ‘Pink Room’—a place designed specifically for women,” said Anastasi Shvetsova, managing partner at M&A PR agency, which represents tech companies. “This isn’t the right approach,” said Arianna Simpson, managing partner at Autonomous Partners, a cryptocurrency venture capital fund. This marginalization has a substantive effect as well, Simpson pointed out. “There are women who are experts on literally every subject on crypto and outside of that,” she said, “so I think that bringing those highly qualified women on to the main panels is what should be happening, rather than saying, ‘look, we have a women in blockchain panel,’ taking place at this specific time.”
It is not only an issue of equitable distribution of wealth. There are many reasons to believe that women can contribute to the industry in significant ways, and that a lack of women could be detrimental.
“There are studies out there that suggest men are predisposed towards bubbles in a way that women are not,” cautions Duncan Stewart, research director of Deloitte Canada’s technology division. Researchers note that women tend to be more cautious in investing in the stock market, but tend to outperform their male peers. In an article titled “Is Bitcoin a bubble? Gender split says probably,” Stewart wrote that, of course, the gender disparity doesn’t prove that Bitcoin is a bubble. “But the fact that 95 percent of the investors in BTC [bitcoin] and other cryptocurrencies are men is a really big red flag for me,” he wrote. “I cannot think of any security, currency or asset class in history that shows that extreme a gender divide and has been sustainable.”
Women stand to gain disproportionately from access to cryptocurrency, says German blockchain entrepreneur Masha McConagh. Around the world, women are still more likely to lack access to finances. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women cannot receive a business loan without having two men testify for them. And in the United States, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that 94 percent of women who were victims of domestic violence had also been victims of economic abuse, where the abuser restricted access to finances. Cryptocurrency is anonymous—users’ finances are connected to a key, not to their name—so women who have internet access and a phone can theoretically take advantage of digital currencies to manage and control their own finances, out of sight of men, the government, or others who might seek to control them.
As blockchain and cryptocurrencies pioneer new frontiers in finance, it is crucial that women participate, not only as founders, but also as consumers, of digital currencies. The alternative is that women will be excluded from the next wave of financial innovation.
Alex Lloyd George contributed to the preparation of this post.