Bitcoin's Problem With Women

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 through today to pitch in posts and keep the conversation going. Here's a contribution from Felix Salmon, who, after years of blogging on finance and the economy for Reuters and other outlets, is now a senior editor at Fusion.

Nathaniel Popper's new book, Digital Gold, is as close as you can get to being the definitive account of the history of Bitcoin. As its subtitle proclaims, the book tells the story of the "misfits" (the first generation of hacker-libertarians) and "millionaires" (the second generation of Silicon Valley venture capitalists) who were responsible for building Bitcoin, mining it, hyping it, and, in at least some cases, getting rich off it.

The tale is selective, of course: Not everybody involved with Bitcoin talked to Popper, and the identity of Bitcoin's inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, remains a mystery. But Popper did talk to most of the important people in the cryptocurrency crowd, and he tells me that he put real effort into trying "to find a woman who was involved in some substantive way."

The result of that search? Zero. Nothing. Zilch. Popper's book features no female principals at all: The sole role of women in the book is as wives and girlfriends.

There are nasty consequences of this. If you are a woman involved with Bitcoin, you are invariably going to get treated like an outsider. As Victoria Turk says, "it seems that the only Bitcoin community that particularly welcomes female participation is the NSFW subreddit r/GirlsGoneBitcoin," which is basically a site where women get paid in cryptocurrency to pose nude. Or look at Arianna Simpson's enraging account of what it's like to be a woman at a Bitcoin meetup:

The person who actually suggested the event to Ryan was another young woman (the only other woman at the event), a VC who was in town from San Francisco and was interested in checking it out for the first time. The aforementioned groper knew Ryan vaguely from other Bitcoin events, and greeted their arrival with a warm "Oh, nice to see you! I see you brought your girlfriend this time." When the two of them try to point out that a) they are not together and b) she was actually the one who had brought him, they are cut off with a swift "Sure, sure, I just wanted to see what the dynamic was between you two." Apparently that's code for "checking if you're ok with my hitting on her," as that's exactly what he proceeds to do.

Men make up an estimated 96 percent of the Bitcoin community, which means that if Bitcoin does end up succeeding, as its adherents think it will, and if the people who own Bitcoin see their holdings soar in value, then all of the profits will end up going to what Brett Scott calls the "crypto-patriarchy." Not many men, to be sure: As Charlie Stross says, the degree of inequality in the Bitcoin economy "is ghastly, and getting worse, to an extent that makes a sub-Saharan African kleptocracy look like a socialist utopia." But it's not many men, and effectively zero women.

Popper doesn't dwell on the almost complete absence of women in the Bitcoin story—in fact, he doesn't mention it at all in his book. And the Bitcoin elite themselves aren't doing much introspection on the topic. (We still have Bitcoin developers like the one in Simpson's article saying things like "women don't care about cryptocurrencies.") But the gender gap is a bigger problem than Bitcoiners realize. Unless and until women can be brought into the Bitcoin fold, broader adoption is simply not going to happen.

If you talk about Bitcoin with the people who use it, the language they use is always about technology and finance. Bitcoiners tend to think in terms of how things work, rather than how they're used in the real world. Buying and selling Bitcoin is still much more difficult than it should be, despite many years of development, which implies that people aren't concentrating enough on real-world ease-of-use.

In general, people buy Bitcoin for one of three reasons: because they're speculating on its future value, because they are doing something illegal, or because they have ideological reasons for doing so. But if there's ever going to be broad adoption of Bitcoin technology, it will need to be appealing to law-abiding people who neither know nor care what the blockchain is, and who have no particular beef whatsoever with fiat currencies.

That's a product design job, and frankly, it's a product design job well suited for women who aren't approaching the problem while grinding the ideological axes so widely held inside the Bitcoin community. As one woman involved with Bitcoin put it to me, "Money is a political issue for Bitcoiners. It's a human issue for everybody else."

Right now, Bitcoin is almost purpose-built for the $582 billion international remittances market, where women are half of the senders, and two-thirds of the recipients. And while there is no shortage of Bitcoin-based remittance products out there, none of them seem to be designing for real-world use cases. The developers are solving technical problems, and ignoring the much bigger and more important human problems.

Let's say you wanted to build a mobile savings app in sub-Saharan African. If you asked male Bitcoin developers to build such a thing for a target audience of young African girls, they might have talked about how to maximize the amount of money saved. But, working on the ground in South Africa, the Praekelt Foundation came from a different perspective. Apps like these aren't really about maximizing savings, so much as they're about empowerment. If you can build a product for girls that ratifies their identity and individuality and gives them self-esteem, then you're creating something much more valuable than a few dollars' worth of savings: You're keeping them in school, and you're keeping them healthy, and you're helping them to not get pregnant. That's the kind of way that cryptocurrencies could change the world. The problem is that the men in Popper's book just don't think that way.

Bitcoin boosters like venture capitalist Marc Andreessen have an interesting reaction when people criticize Bitcoin on the grounds that the community is just male nerds. Yes, they say, it is—just like the internet was, 20 years ago. In other words, far from treating the homogeneity of Bitcoin as a problem, they treat it as being auspicious. And, so far at least, there's no evidence that they're really attempting to fix the problem.

The lack of women in Bitcoin isn't just an issue of equality. It's a fundamental weakness of the currency itself. As long as the Bitcoin community is dominated by men geeking out about the blockchain, it's never going to be able to make the human connections that are required for widespread adoption. Right now, the best that anybody can hope for (and no one's holding their breath even for this) is that a handful of female geeks might be welcomed into the clique of male geeks who are working on Bitcoin-related projects.

But even if that happens, it's not even close to being sufficient. Bitcoin, at its core, is an attempt to solve big socioeconomic problems through technology. So long as it remains an overwhelmingly male domain, it's going to continue to concentrate on the economic problems, while missing the big social problems. Which means that it's going to continue going nowhere.