A worrying trend is emerging in blockchain, and it is one all too familiar in emerging technologies – where are all the women?
It’s a pretty important question – we’re already seeing both enterprise and governments invest significant sums into the technology, uncovering use-cases that have the potential to upend the way we live. By 2025, Deloitte has estimated that as much as 10% of global GDP will be built on blockchain applications.
Unfortunately, according to Google Analytics, 91.2% of people involved with the Bitcoin space are men. Another recent survey conducted by Quartz found that, of 378 crypto startups founded between 2012 and 2018, only 8.5% had a woman as a founder or co-founder.
This lack of gender diversity is also evident at blockchain-related events. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami had 84 male speakers and three women – and this was after organisers recruited two more women to placate an outraged public. It originally had one.
The after-party was also held at a strip club, which perhaps provides some insight into the vibe organisers were going for.
The problem is not exclusive to blockchain though, it exists across the entire tech industry. According to Square’s diversity report, 18.8% of employees in tech are women. Quartz, meanwhile, found that 17.7% of startups across the tech sector had a woman as a founder or co-founder. These numbers, while admittedly better than those found in blockchain, are not exactly cause for celebration.
Why we must redress the balance
A lack of women in blockchain and other emerging technologies has potentially devastating implications – both for the technologies and for society as a whole.
The first problem is that it means tech is often designed with men in mind. This includes a number of vital inventions where the unintended consequences of an all-male team have proved fatal. For example, the team behind the car air-bag.
During the design process, they based their working on the height and weight chart for the standard man, who can, on average, stand far more force. As a result, a number of women and children were killed when those early airbags were deployed.
In the same vein, AI that has been trained using data containing existing gender bias will likely cause similar problems unlikely to be properly considered by all-male teams. We are already seeing this problem manifest in small ways.
Google Translate, for example, has displayed signs of gender bias. When translating the statement ‘he is a babysitter, she is a doctor’ into Turkish, a gender-neutral language, Google switched the gender association to ‘she is a babysitter, he is a doctor’ when translating back to English.
This may seem trivial, but such problems are likely to become far more frequent and far more damaging as adoption of the technology increases.
The same is true in blockchain. As the technology develops, it needs to scale with the interests of all of us in mind. Women stand to gain disproportionately from access to cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, and to marginalise them is to miss a tremendous opportunity.
German blockchain entrepreneur Masha McConagh, for one, notes that women in much of the world have restricted access to their finances. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women need two men to testify for them before they can receive a business loan. The anonymity afforded by cryptocurrency means any woman with internet access can theoretically access digital currencies and thereby control her own finances.
It is not just women who stand to lose out if the technology fails to keep them in mind, though. Emerging technology will not reach its full potential if gender diversity is absent in its development. One report by Morgan Stanley, found that highly gender-diverse tech companies returned on average 5.4% more on an annual basis than their less diverse peers.
A diverse team will have a broader range of interests and experiences, resulting in different ways of thinking and more creative solutions.
At Binary District, our entire senior management team is female and we have seen the benefits. We are a collaborative tech community, and by putting on events that appeal to a diverse tech audience, our attendance is more evenly distributed across the genders. We see the results in the insights produced.
Solving the issue
So, what can we do to ensure that women aren’t disproportionately excluded again? There is, unfortunately, no easy solution. It requires an entire cultural shift.
This starts at a young age. A Microsoft study into the gender disparity in tech found that female interest in STEM begins to decrease by the age of 15. The reasons cited by those surveyed included the lack of female role models and hands-on experience available within the area.
A further 60% of them admitted that they would be more willing to pursue a STEM-related career if they knew that men and women were equally employed in these professions.
Woman such as Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, and Katherine Johnson, whose work at NASA was critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. manned space flights, have done amazing things in tech.
Even today, women are doing incredible things in blockchain, such as Olga Feldmeier, CEO and founder of Smart Valor, and Connie Gallippi, founder of Bitcoin charity the BitGive foundation. Their achievements are often left out of the history books and they need to be discussed more in schools to show both girls and boys that tech is for everyone.
The situation is improving. Groups like Women in Blockchain are raising awareness about the importance of diversity in the industry. I spoke to Cindy Mallory, Marketing and Emergent Technology Strategist at JAKT and Co-Chair of the VR/AR Association’s Blockchain Committee. She said:
“The first summit on VC for blockchain I attended in NYC had ZERO women speakers. I asked the organiser why, and she responded that they couldn’t find any. I’ve now spoken at Blockchain Week, universities, and Reuters, and the requests are pouring in. Why? Because women are highly underrepresented in blockchain.
“Organisers are doing their best to give diversity a voice on the stage, and yet, women in blockchain are a small percentage of the tech revolution. However, we persist. The women in the blockchain community are strong. They provide support, opportunities, and mentorship.
“I found my co-chair for my second international research committee for the VR/AR Association, this time in blockchain, through the slack community. Kimberly, an ex Microsoft tech journalist, is now my remote editor-in-chief at JAKT. We take care of each other, celebrate wins, understand the struggle, and push forward.”
Women have long been left behind in tech and emerging technologies are an opportunity to rewrite the narrative. Earlier this year, Alexia Bonatsos, a female venture capitalist, tweeted: “Women, consider crypto. Otherwise the men are going to get all the wealth, again. ”
Former Director of Market Development and businesswoman Randi Zuckerberg has invested heavily in emerging technologies like blockchain and crypto. She explains that she does it not “because I, like, 100% think any of these things are going to be the next big thing.
But it is way easier for all of us to start on an even playing field in these new industries that are starting now than to struggle to play catch-up, only to then be left 10 years from now having these same conversations because we’ve missed the boat on these new things.”
Emerging technologies need women, and women need emerging technologies. While there are no easy solutions to getting more women in tech, it is vital that we work together to solve the problem before we fall back into the same old cycle.
Alena Lapukhova, is country manager of collaborative tech community Binary District.