The first rule of being a woman in crypto is you do not talk about being a woman in crypto

The second rule of being a woman in crypto is you DO NOT talk about being a woman in crypto.
The second rule of being a woman in crypto is you DO NOT talk about being a woman in crypto.
Image: Koji Sasahara/AP
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In February, in a pastel-colored room of The Wing in Soho, New York, Amber Baldet, the now-former blockchain lead at JPMorgan Chase, was spreading her gospel to a rapt audience of women: Cryptocurrencies and their underpinning technology will dramatically transform the world.

For those who believed women were being sidelined in this new industry, Baldet, now starting her own company, had a message: wrong. Women just weren’t being publicly recognized for their work.

For months, through interviews and media coverage, I had heard a similar refrain: Ambitious women were leading and shaping the blockchain industry, only to have skewed media coverage obfuscate their contributions.

But I had also heard another narrative. That of being among just three women at a 100-person crypto meetup, of being overlooked by male investors and for speaking positions, of being sexually harassed at industry conferences. “Sexism is so fucking bad in the blockchain industry,” says Julia, who asked to use an alias for fear of compromising her career. “I’ve wanted to quit so many times.”

In theory, the crypto industry offers women a new opportunity to engage, in a way neither tech—nor any other industry—has offered before. By its nature, participation can be anonymous. You can contribute to the technology, and mine bitcoin and ether, without anyone knowing who you are. You can create a digital wallet and invest without any form of identification.

But on its current path, crypto is replaying the same inequities that came before. Men still overwhelmingly dominate the technology’s development and the accumulation of resulting wealth—though the gender of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym for bitcoin’s inventor, remains unknown. Without a concentrated effort to change the industry’s course, it will further entrench the existing gender gap in finance and tech, this time in an unregulated and anonymous environment.

“What you’re observing is really a reflection of the much larger complications of gender and work and power in American society,” says Joy Rankin, a historian of gender and technology and an assistant professor at Michigan State University. “This is a microcosm of all of the challenges of a developing, burgeoning sector of the economy that has a lot of promise but is therefore also fraught with high stakes.”

The lack of diversity in crypto has implications beyond a basic sense of fairness. If blockchain really does redefine the global financial system, the uniformity among its creators will result in biased products. Think of the algorithmic bias that resulted from AI being developed by predominantly white men. Or of the US credit system prior to 1974, which barred women from applying for a credit card—one of the most basic forms of financial inclusion.

To survive in this new industry, women like Baldet, who have power and influence, must strike a delicate balance between promoting female representation and maintaining their reputations in a male-dominant world. Those with less clout endure sexism and harassment in silence—the price they pay to break into the industry from below. Everyone, ultimately, plays by the men’s rules and risks her career by pointing it out.

“Sometimes I can be pretty cynical about the industry and how it has morphed to be more and more like the systems of power we see today—just with new leaders,” says Bailey Reutzel, an editor at CoinDesk. “It’s just like The Who song: ‘Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.’”

Conflicting data

The most commonly cited studies place female participation in the crypto community—including developers, investors, and casually interested individuals—between 4% and 6%. Compare this to tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple—approximations of the tech sector at large—where the percentage of women employees hovers between 30% and 35%.

At The Wing, Baldet argued that these low percentages are the results of “flawed studies.” Many base their numbers off of Google’s estimation of the demographic breakdown of traffic to digital wallets or crypto sites, one that Baldet says can rest on biased assumptions. Other studies, such as one that found men account for 96% of the ethereum community, are based on surveys administered in already male-dominated spaces like Reddit.

Quartz’s own analyses of data, however, seem to corroborate those results. Of the 378 venture-backed crypto and blockchain companies founded globally from January 2012 through January 2018, only one (0.3%) had an all-female founding team and 31 (8.2%) had a combination of male and female founders, according to Pitchbook. During the same period, 17.7% of all tech companies had at least one female founder.

A Quartz survey of 1,004 individuals, administered through our daily newsletter and social media channels, also showed that 81% of the respondents involved in some capacity with crypto were men. That percentage increased to 86% for company founder and 89% for project contributor—though it dipped slightly to 77% for company employees.

Finally, Forbes’ database of the wealthiest people in crypto includes 19 men and no women.

Forbes' list of the richest people in cryptocurrency
Forbes’ list of the richest people in cryptocurrency
Image: Forbes/Screenshot

Whatever the exact numbers, it’s clear that women are only a small fraction of those holding positions of influence in this new industry. That means the industry’s mainstream culture and opportunity landscape are resoundingly still a product of men.

“We don’t want to speak about being female”

The women who do have power in crypto argue that drawing attention to the gender gap will do no good. “The perception that there are no women in bitcoin discourages women from getting involved,” Elizabeth Stark, co-founder of blockchain startup Lightning Labs, wrote me in a direct message on Twitter.

The best way to increase women’s participation, they say, is to instead talk about the amazing work of women leading the industry—ecosystem builders like Athena Capital founder Meltem Demirors and Boost VC director of operations Maddie Callander, technology innovators like BlockCypher founder Catheryne Nicholson and BitPesa founder Elizabeth Rossiello, and evangelists in the corporate world like Baldet and General Electric’s Maja Vujinovic.

This philosophy informs how these women approach increasing their ranks. They hold all-female conferences dedicated to talking about their work while sidestepping sticky questions of how to navigate a male-dominant world. They profile women who are shaping the industry without directly addressing the sexism. “We don’t want to speak about being female,” Stark said. “We’re all so busy, and then we have an additional burden.”

Their desire to be seen for their accomplishments, rather than their gender, is deeply valid—particularly as the #MeToo movement has forced women to confront their role in exposing toxic gender dynamics in the workplace. As Susan Zhou, a veteran VC based in Hong Kong, told Quartz’s Zheping Huang, the open nature of the crypto industry allows women with strong self-motivation and learning ability to take a lead. But this mentality also has insidious consequences. It suggests that the greatest obstacle to getting women involved is not a flawed system, but their own insufficient efforts.

It’s also not simply a matter of blaming women at the top for failing to confront structural barriers. They, too, operate within the confines of a male-dominant industry. Research shows that when women are in the minority, they learn to perceive their gender as an obstacle to success. As a result, they consciously and subconsciously avoid gendered labels and discussions for fear of damaging their reputations.

Bonita Wang, for example, an independent director at the Hong Kong-based nonprofit behind LikeCoin, uses a gender-neutral pen name and avatar photo to write a weekly column for a local economic journal about investment tools, including crypto. “People may think women are not that persuasive,” she told Huang.

Jen Macchiarelli, a developer who formerly worked at a crypto-focused financial services firm, put it another way: “Do you want to be known for what you’re interested in, what you want to do, or do you want to be known as the person who always wants to discuss women in crypto? I think it does feel like a big risk to have this conversation.”

“There’s really no incentive to be a good actor”

At the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami in January, the organizers invited attendees to a post-event party “for some networking and R&R. Or dancing.” Those who showed up discovered a mixer featuring waitresses in revealing tops and lingerie, hosted in a 20,000-square-foot strip club. “We’re a bunch of dudes with a lot of money in our 20s. We like naked girls,” Jeff Scott, a New York cryptocurrency trader, told Bloomberg of the event.

After the incident was referenced by the New York Times (paywall), the reaction among leading women in crypto followed a well-established playbook: Point the camera away from the industry’s problems and create a powerful counter-narrative focused on the amazing contributions of women.

“The attitude towards women in the cryptocurrency space is much better than the article describes,” Masha Drokova, founder of Day One Ventures, told Forbes. “The crypto space is not about gender, but more about your energy, professionalism, and speed. As a female investor and professional I never felt more appreciated and supported in any industry than in blockchain.”

Other women took to Twitter:

But Miami wasn’t an isolated incident. At the 2018 Anarchapulco conference, an annual international gathering of anarchists in Acapulco, Mexico, scantily clad women walked around advertising Monkeycoin, which claims to be Venezuela’s first regulated Bitcoin exchange. Last year, CoinAgenda, the leading blockchain investment conference, invited convicted domestic abuser Gurbaksh Chahal to speak on a panel. And shortly after the viral take off of CryptoKitties, an ethereum game for trading and breeding cartoon cats, a group launched a spin-off called EthBabes to buy and sell busty cartoon women in lingerie.

Subtler examples of ingrained sexism abound. The idea that the lack of female representation is solely due to lack of female interest still thrives in public forums. Women in the industry primarily hold roles in business development, marketing, and fundraising, rather than in coding and development. And the gender gap is so immense that it distorts perceptions of diversity. In response to Miami, John Poller, an entrepreneur who’s part of the Blockchain for Social Impact initiative, tweeted, “#ETHDenver is focused on diversity, inclusion, respect”—referencing the largest ethereum conference in the US. In a separate tweet, he elaborated: “#ETHDenver has 20% women who are attending.” The implication: 20% is a mark of excellence.

In that context, the reactions of leading women to Miami may simply reflect a broader privilege of women at the top. Many of them—Drokova, Stark, and Baldet included—entered the crypto industry with established networks. As a result, they began with a certain standing and didn’t have to rely on meetups and events to make industry inroads. The same can’t be said for the vast majority of other women in crypto.

Julia, for example, the entrepreneur who asked not to use her real name, began in the industry four years ago without any friends or connections to lean on. “I was going out and meeting strangers at Bitcoin meetups that I didn’t know who’d end up hitting on me,” she says, noting that women with established relationships have other channels “to bring them enough deal flow, for lack of a better phrase.”

Margaret, also an alias, an industry veteran currently working on an Israeli-based blockchain venture, had similar insights on the discrepancy. “I could get how you could have different experiences in the blockchain space,” she says. “When you come into this space from an incumbent role—like if you work for a bank, as a VC, or as a consultant—then the guys have to treat you with a certain degree of respect from the start because you already have the power. But I came into the space always on a startup path, always small and scrappy.”

Consequently, Margaret says, she was often underestimated at crypto meetups by men with far less experience or knowledge. Once she lost a speaking engagement at a conference to a man, on a topic that she had taught him about. Last year at Consensus, an annual blockchain summit hosted by CoinDesk, she broke a personal record for the number of messages she received from men that included their private key and hotel room number. “And this is the benign stuff that happens,” she says.

While trying to raise funds for her company, Julia said that male investors often blatantly ignored her at networking events, disregarding her extended hand to shake the hands of her male co-founders. Once, she said, she was harassed by a prominent blockchain developer at a major industry conference. During the dinner event, after her repeated attempts to escape his drunken advances, he cornered her at her seat and groped her thigh under the table. She left without finishing her food.

“Other people at the conference noticed that this developer was sexually harassing me. Nobody said anything. Nobody did anything,” she said. “There’s really no incentive to be a good actor.”

An opportunity to be better

Despite the ingrained misogyny, many women are optimistic about their chances of success in crypto. The decentralization and transparency inherent to blockchain technology have the potential to create fairer and more open models of collaboration. People around the world can contribute to projects remotely and help shape the technology’s future. “I think there is an opportunity to accelerate the progress that we might not yet see in the tech world,” said Macchiarelli.

Concrete steps to increase gender diversity are also underway. In March, for example, TOKEN2049, one of Asia’s biggest crypto conferences, offered a 50% discount on tickets for women. Women made up only around 200 of the 1,200 attendees, but Chris Strauch, the conference’s co-host, said it was an improvement. “We feel that the topic [of female representation] is on everyone’s mind,” he told Quartz’s Huang.

In April, the University of Berkeley, California, hosted a women in blockchain conference to inspire female students and young professionals. In May, Consensus’s annual Blockchain Week NYC event series will feature a full day of women-and-diversity programming.

“There’s a growing awareness [among men] that this is an issue,” said Susan Poole, the founder of BlockBridge Advisory, a blockchain startup advisory company, and the nonprofit Diversity in Blockchain. “Some companies are starting to proactively hire for diversity, and other organizations are actually creating diversity and women type programs.”

“It’s still early, and it’s still got a long way to go,” said Poole, “but I’m hopeful.”

Additional reporting contributed by Joon Ian Wong, Zheping Huang, Dave Edwards, and John Detrixhe.