Blockchain’s Diversity Problem — Why Women Aren’t The Only Ones Missing

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I was recently joking around on Twitter during a conference. I wrote:

“Only at a blockchain conference is the line for the men’s bathroom around the block, and no one is in the women’s restroom.”

It was funny to me because you never see that happen, but the responses I got were disheartening.

Many said the tweet made upset them because it was so indicative of the actual situation in blockchain.

They’re right.

While there are generally more women in the blockchain industry than in tech, there’s still a sizable diversity problem.

And it’s not just women — people of varied ethnicities, people with varied educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and varied sexual orientations and genders are also incredibly underrepresented at the moment.

It wasn’t always this way.

I want to take a moment and reflect on why that is, and discuss how we can instill change that ensures the industry is welcoming to people from all walks of life.

The Current Situation

The origins of blockchain and cryptocurrency are part of the reason why the industry lacks diversity.

I say this with a heavy heart, as the technology was originally built by and for the people. It was supposed to be the great democratizer.

On one hand, we hear stories how this technology was built mostly by anonymous groups, individuals, and contributors. They could be anyone. They could be no one. Open. Transparent. Just like the technology.

As Jorge Rodriguez aptly puts in this LinkedIn post, “ It is very nice to see that professionals from all sectors collaborate to create projects for the improvement of the world together. Blockchain does not understand ages, races, sex or ideologies. The help and collaboration of all the people in many of the projects to create a better world is being enormous.”

To which I respond, “We must fight to keep it that way.”

Why is that?

Because there is a sort of cognitive dissonance at the moment. Blockchain — the great equalizer — is under threat. Not just in respect to diversity of the individuals participating in the ecosystem, but in respect to diversity of thought. Some companies even think they can “own” the blockchain.

The goal here is to conceive of blockchain not in terms of the limits of the previous landscape or landscapes, but in the potentials of the new one it presents. And yet as the ecosystem shifts and tides change, blockchain doesn’t seem to be immune to the diversity challenges common to STEM industries.

The early days of blockchain and crypto consisted mainly of hacktivists and cypherpunks. And while their motivations were well intentioned, the demographic was mostly white males. While they promoted themselves as an inclusive community, there were actually very few early contributors with diverse backgrounds.

Fast forward 10 or so years, and look at the contemporary origins of blockchain and cryptocurrency: tech and finance — areas which are still struggling to become more representative of the population as a whole.

Tech and finance are very white, heteronormative industries.

There are a range of issues implicit in that disparity.

For one thing, socioeconomic and gender diversity is lacking.

And although I could talk all day about the challenges that women face in the tech industry, that would be overlooking the significant socioeconomic factors that work to discourage anyone outside of that traditional white, heteronormative sphere.

Today, Black and Latinx workers combined make up only 5% of the tech industry workforce.

Individuals who don’t hold traditional degrees are also struggling for representation. At IBM — a company actively working to hire skilled workers without degrees — only 10% to 15% of new hires don’t hold traditional degrees.

And the 2017 Tech Leavers study found 1 in 10 women experienced unwanted sexual attention, while LGBT employees were most likely to be bullied and/or experience public humiliation.

That’s indicative of systemic issues in the industry that aren’t necessarily just about women.

If you’re wondering why that is, think about how much it really costs to get involved with blockchain or buy bitcoin. You need a computer and internet access. You need a proper education and the resources to be able to buy bitcoin in the first place.

Large groups of people are immediately excluded from participating in the industry as owners of production, in the Marxist sense.

On the other hand, cryptocurrencies themselves are accessible to the mass market and general public via easily accessible applications like Coinbase. I often overhear restaurant workers and Uber drivers discussing their crypto portfolios.

So, what’s stopping the industry itself from becoming easily accessible?

Barriers To Diversity

Another concerning trend I’ve noticed is the emergence of big institutional investors on the blockchain scene.

The cryptocurrency price surges draw these investors from the finance industry — a field that’s traditionally been dominated by white men.

This has led to audience changes in the meetings and events I attend. In some cases, it’s gone from a very collaborative group in casual clothing to bankers wearing button-up suits. It’s very exclusionary and male-dominated, seemingly only for the elite.

That’s not a direction that we want to go, but it may be hard to avoid.

That said, the capital that’s flowing in from these traditional industries is going to affect blockchain. We might soon see the SEC make a judgement about regulating tokenized ecosystems and ICOs. All of that is going to impact diversity — and not necessarily in a good way.

Here’s why that’s true:

Early on in my career, I found fundraising to be incredibly difficult.

Some of the male venture capitalists could be extremely patronizing, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. Others would put out sketchy offers for dates or meetings in a hotel lobby — or even their rooms. And I’m definitely not alone in that regard. I still talk to people who’ve had the same experiences in the blockchain community.

With the increasing influx of money and crypto assets, there are going to be more people taking advantage of their powerful positions.

These are the outside forces that could lead to a worsening in the diversity problem facing blockchain tech. But I’m still optimistic, because it isn’t all bad news.

The Push For More Diversity

We are slowly seeing improvement in the representation of women and minorities in blockchain.

That’s especially true in the event circuit and panels, where many organizers have made a commitment to put varied voices on the stage.

This is so important, because the end goal is to have a diverse group of public figures. These figures encourage others to get involved and show underrepresented groups they are supported in the industry.

We want any young person to look at a blockchain company or event and see themselves represented in a meaningful way.

Another good sign is that 46% of Coinbase’s new hires this year were either women or ethnically diverse. In the end, that’s what it’s going to take. Multiple parties all pushing for a more diverse and inclusive industry that’s willing to tap into the largest pool of talent available.

Because blockchain really should be the perfect space for inclusivity and diversity to thrive.

The underlying spirit of the technology lies in opposition to rigid or standard systems put in place by conventional finance companies or the internet’s data monopolies.

Blockchain is meant to oppose the normative expectations of society.

The technology requires that people come together and use it collaboratively. People who are accustomed to owning their data and keeping it in a cloud database are now working on one shared ledger. It’s collaborative. Diverse.

Reach Out And See What Happens

My recommendation to be a part of increasing diversity is to get involved.

It may seem intimidating, but the community is very welcoming. Reach out to people that you admire on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you read an article and think that the author has a great perspective, get in touch with them. Sign up for Coinbase and educate yourself.

Or better yet, invest a small amount and get your hands dirty.

Seriously, people will give you the time of day. They’ll connect you to the right people or help you find support. Reach out, get involved, and see what happens.

I know that it can seem daunting to enter an industry that appears to be dominated by one group. But we need people to make that leap and show everyone else that diversity truly has a place in blockchain.

There are numerous groups focusing on diversity in blockchain, like Women in Blockchain, the 51%, and more. When I participate in these events, panels, and slack groups, I am optimistically reminded that the ideological principles that the technology was founded on are alive and in action.

After all, blockchain was built on the premise of inclusion and democratization. We all want to keep it that way. We are all on the same team. Sharing perspectives on how or why that potential might be threatened is a difficult but important conversation to have.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning for healthy discourse as we shape a new world economy together.