Cryptocurrency Is Not Just a Boys’ Club
When dinner conversations turn to cryptocurrency, as they often do these days, I brace for a grilling, because I’ve been a reporter covering the topic for six years. “Do you own any?” “Is it too late to get rich?” “What’s the next big coin?” The answer is always the same: I’m neither an investor nor a financial adviser. (So no, I’m not going to tell you whether to buy or sell either.)
But the main reason I won’t give you advice is that, to me, the price tag on a digital coin is its most boring feature. What’s most fascinating about cryptocurrencies is they don’t care who you are. Be you a man, woman, person of color, trans, someone with bad credit, someone with no credit—if you can log on to a computer and push the right buttons, you can send money just like anyone else. That accessibility is a big part of what makes this technology such a breakthrough. There’s no gatekeeper.
That’s all possible because of how these currencies are built: Cryptocurrency transactions are processed and recorded by peer-to-peer networks—not any one individual, bank, or government. These networks get around relying on those institutions by putting to work a group of people on the network called miners. In the case of Bitcoin, for example, thousands of those miners are competing at this very moment to process a bunch of transactions and add them to a record called the blockchain. That competition is really a race to solve a series of cryptographic puzzles—the first one to make it across the finish line gets rewarded with a handful of new Bitcoins, hot off the minting press. Those entries in the blockchain record are then verified by other people on the network.
Think about that for a second: a group of strangers working together to secure a global currency and payment system without the authority of any formal institution. That’s technologically astounding. It’s also completely changing how we use money, because a lot of things happen when banks and governments are not making all the rules. Suddenly borders, time zones, and working hours become irrelevant. You can send a payment anywhere in the world at any time and have it go through, generally, within minutes—you don’t need permission from your bank, you don’t need to go through a company like PayPal or Venmo.“There’s a massive opportunity here to change the global financial structure, to change a lot of ways that society interacts with technology,” says Elizabeth Stark, the CEO of Lightning Labs, which, in March, released an early version of much anticipated software that is designed to make Bitcoin transactions faster, cheaper, and more private. “And it is crucially important that women participate.”
This new financial world started out much like the old one did: male and white. In the early days of Bitcoin, for example, miners were disproportionately men who racked up much of the wealth. When it came time for these lucky few to reinvest in cryptocurrency development, the teams they built reflected the original gender disparity.
Stories of sudden wealth followed, solidifying a stereotype of what leaders in cryptocurrency looked like. “A lot of people say to me, ‘Why do you think there’s not a lot of women in Bitcoin, in blockchain?’” says Connie Gallippi, the founder of BitGive, the first nonprofit in Bitcoin. “I say, ‘Actually, there are. They’re just not given the same level of exposure or recognition.’ That’s the problem.”
Tavonia Evans, who worked in the tech industry for nearly 20 years before launching her own cryptocurrency, called $Guap, sees those women too and says they’re raising the bar because of how they’ve been held back in the past. “The crypto market is highly competitive at the moment with people fighting for influence,” she says. “The men I’ve observed vying for influence are not very tech-savvy at all. Women in tech, however, tend to overachieve, study more, and expand their expertise legitimately just so they can get in this space.”
Perhaps that’s why they’re filling some of the top posts in cryptocurrency: Amber Baldet helped lead the Blockchain Center of Excellence at J.P. Morgan for more than two years; Elizabeth Rossiello founded a foreign exchange and payment platform in Africacalled BitPesa; Galia Benartzi cofounded Bancor, a liquidity protocol that makes it easier to convert cryptocurrencies. And you can expect to hear more from these leaders, in part because they want women to get credit for the work they’re doing, which, Gallippi points out, can motivate more women to get involved.
Baldet, who has spent a lot of her time in tech working with at-risk populations, stresses how having someone at the design table who represents the people who are going to use the technology can sometimes even be a matter of life or death. “Women, I’ve found, are quick to postulate scenarios that unfortunately often hit close to home, like how GPS location sharing or an emailed receipt might disclose sensitive activity to an abusive partner,” she says. “Later those same privacy features might make someone love your app because you kept them from accidentally ruining a surprise party. Diversity in development isn’t about a numbers game. It’s about filling in each other’s blind spots to build a safer, more useful product for everybody.”
Designing these applications to be attractive to women is also just good business, says Meltem Demirors, who recently left her post as a vice president at Digital Currency Group, a cryptocurrency- and blockchain-focused investment firm that she helped launch in 2015. She notes that 80 percent of consumer spending in the U.S. is influenced by women. Not making these currencies work for women would mean “missing out on the biggest concentration of wealth,” she says. “It’s women who control money in this world.”
A New Cryptocurrency Club
This generation of female entrepreneurs, having watched men own the tech space, is intent on keeping the playing field level. They insist that closing the gender gap will result in a more inclusive technology.
Gallippi, of BitGive, immediately noticed that cryptocurrency conferences had almost exclusively all-male speaker lineups. “It just drove me insane,” she says. So she began to compile a list of women in the space that she sent to conference organizers, urging them to draw more heavily from female talent. Even today when she attends panels, “very often I’m the only woman or one of the very few women speaking,” she says. Women, Gallippi says, should have a seat at the table. “They should be up in front of people, and that would draw more women in.”
Other powerful women in the field have used their influence to pull women up the ranks. “I just brought on a female board member. I specifically went out there and said, ‘I’m looking for a female,’” says Rossiello, of BitPesa, a service that has operations across Africa, as well as in the U.K. and Europe, that allows users to make business payments and buy and sell Bitcoins from their mobile phones. “I think being that bold is important to change the cycle.”
A new network is forming among these women, all of whom talk of the others in glowing, supportive terms. “Wealth in our world is unfortunately still synonymous with power,” says Demirors. “So if we want to see women in power, let’s help each other create wealth and let’s redeploy that wealth into helping other women grow amazing businesses. It’s not hard to foster more diversity. Empower women, hire them, give them capital. We are in the middle of one of the largest wealth-creation cycles of this decade, if not this century.” And she wants to make sure women don’t miss out.
As Stark sees it, blockchain technologies today are analogous to the early days of the Internet. “Women need to be building this new frontier,” she says. “There’s way too much of the prior generation of the Internet that was not built by a diverse group of people.” Recently we’ve seen how a diet of all-white-male test data can lead to bias in artificial intelligence, overlooking people of color, for example. “I want to see broader participation,” says Stark, “broader perspectives contributing to better problem-solving.”
Thanks to the women on the front lines, the industry may just have a shot at getting things right this time.
Morgen Peck, a freelance technology writer, has been covering cryptocurrency since 2011.