Anyone can use cryptocurrency. Man, woman, pony, or toaster—we all look alike on a blockchain.
But the cryptocurrency scene has gotten a bad reputation for being much less open and inclusive than the technology itself. In January, one of the longest-running Bitcoin events, the North American Bitcoin Conference, put dozens of men on its agenda but only one woman. When it came time to schmooze, attendees were invited to a local strip club.
Yet there are many incredible women now leading the cryptocurrency industry. One is Amber Baldet. She’s been called the “crypto queen” and the “Madonna of blockchain.” Since 2015, she’s run JPMorgan Chase’s department devoted to finding ways to use blockchain. During her time there she has overseen the creation of Quorum, a business version of Ethereum. In May she leaves to start her own blockchain venture.
In her work, Baldet makes a habit of smashing assumptions. She smashed a few more when MIT Technology Review asked her about the state of diversity in the cryptocurrency world.
The cryptocurrency community has gotten some discouraging press in recent months—portraits of an entitled boys’ club. Do we have a gender problem on our hands?
If you draw a Venn diagram of finance and technology, and specifically information security and cryptography, these are all fields that struggle with a lack of women and minority representation in leadership positions. Cryptocurrency sits in the center, where they all overlap. When you have an intellectual diaspora into a new area of study, the new group tends to inherit its demographic profile from its source groups. Just because cryptocurrency may be a philosophically and technically new thing, it’s not magically a green-field meritocracy.
That said, my anecdotal experience is that representation at most developer-focused blockchain events is neither better nor worse than at most other tech conferences. There’s usually about 15 percent of people who don’t fit the “standard developer” stereotype, give or take a few percentage points, and that number has gotten better over time. At events that have more business-development or social-good focus, it’s much higher. I don’t think this is because women are inherently better or more interested in those topics—it’s simply the same inheritor bias of where more women work today.
But there’s also another effect at play, and that’s survivorship bias. Many of the women who got involved early come with battle scars from those other male-dominated communities and are fiercely determined to see it be different this time. So we’re having these conversations earlier, setting up scholarships earlier, creating women-in-blockchain networking channels earlier, and pushing back against a toxic culture of “rock-star developer” hero-worship. We’re still in the infancy of blockchain adoption; the efforts happening now are going to have serious long-term ripple effects.
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Has the gender disparity led to an unwelcoming culture?
There is no monolithic “blockchain culture.” People are working on academic research, building businesses, writing legal briefs, consulting for enterprises, and, of course … investing. People further fragment along technical lines, defending their favorite coin or project with loyalty that borders on the religious. All this can be daunting for newcomers to navigate, and some subgroups are known for being friendlier than others.
Many projects are great and welcome women with open arms, and repeatedly positioning the entire space as unwelcoming causes a negative feedback loop that dissuades great people from getting involved.
If you think “the” culture is represented by the very active and often very hostile crypto Twitter, you’re going to have a bad time. Shouting opinions on the internet is a low barrier to entry, and there are certainly some people out there who give everyone a bad name. Stop letting trolls be referees of credibility, because they always move the goalposts.
So are we spending too much time talking about diversity? Do we really need a diversity panel at every conference?
A subtle nuance—we’re trying to shift the conversation from diversity, which can sound like a numbers game or an HR problem, to inclusion, which is a way of thinking holistically about the impact of our choices that should permeate everything we do.
While we can probably never spend too much time talking about inclusion, it’s unfortunate that the majority of the burden of doing so falls disproportionately on the shoulders of those already responsible for doing real technical work and also fighting for their own legitimacy.
Conferences that magically forget to put us on stage to talk about anything but diversity should be named and shamed, but having those discussions as a supplement is generally fine, I think. It would be great to have those panels serve more as lightning rounds for participants to talk about what they’re working on and what they’re passionate about rather than how it feels to exist.
You’re about to start your own venture. Do you worry that raising money will be harder as a woman?
I am of course aware of the abysmal statistics around women when it comes to employment at, and funding from, Silicon Valley VCs. As someone with years of experience, a strong network, and a real business plan, however, I get to be selective about who I choose to work with. I don’t have time for anyone who underestimates me because of my gender.
You sound optimistic that the future of technology will be more inclusive.
Inclusion, like health and happiness, is not something that you arrive at one day and say, “We’re done!” It’s something that you work at every day, a process.
Inclusion happens when your recruiting process casts a wider net for qualified candidates. It happens when you give credit to people for their ideas and contributions. It happens when you value the people who help design and bring your product to market as much as the people who code it. It happens when you create AI support bots and don’t give them women’s names. It happens when you spin up a group chat and choose whom to invite. Inclusion happens when people in power use that power to bring people in rather than keep people out.