Michael J. Casey is chairman of CoinDesk’s advisory board and a senior advisor of blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative.
It’s International Women’s Day – a good time for a mea culpa to the overlooked women in the blockchain industry.
Last week, Paul Vigna and I presided over a Museum of American Finance event at Fordham University to mark the publication of our new book, The Truth Machine.
We sold a good number of books. We were very happy.
But the event could have, and should have, been different.
The lineup of speakers, excellent as it was, was entirely composed of white men. It further reinforced the idea that the world of cryptocurrency and blockchains is a male-dominated affair, and it did so before an impressionable audience of relative newcomers to the technology.
We helped perpetuate an imbalance in which the narrative, the access, the culture and thus the development and policymaking behind this technology has been steered by a small group of similar male elites. In planning the event, we’d fallen for the oldest mind trick in the book, and it had been played on us by very own minds: the bias of habit and of insufficient critical thinking.
I’m especially embarrassed about this because I’ve been preaching for some time the urgent need for diversity in the crypto community.
My concerns are only slightly fueled by stories of the ugly “bro” culture and showy displays of wealth that permeate the crypto trading community. It is sad that the “lambo” crowd in general gets so much attention from mainstream press. Relative to so many other important elements of the blockchain and crypto ecosystem, it’s a sideshow.
The bigger problem is that in those more important realms – the areas of software and protocol development, of entrepreneurship and of policy negotiation – male voices are also overly dominant. These are the people writing the rules by which this vital new technology gets to evolve. If our economic existence is to be defined by these new, far-reaching algorithms, humanity needs as a diverse an input as possible into their development.
There’s no a shortage of brilliant female minds in this space. Those who suggest there is are guilty of the same circular arguments rife in anti-feminist arguments everywhere: that men are simply better at this stuff, as proven by their prominent leadership positions. “Better” is defined by its own, internal parameters. Men, wielding power, set the terms of the debate.
I know loads of women providing intelligent, outside-the-box perspectives on the challenges and solutions we face across the multi-disciplinary arena that blockchain technology resides within. I work for one of them at MIT. But rather than deliver some tokenistic sample of those names, I want to instead focus here on just one woman in this industry, because he story has helped me discover the pitfalls of my own biases.
Recently, I was at a birthday party for Sandra Ro (a woman who, incidentally, masterminded the CME Group’s bitcoin futures policy before departing her position as that company’s blockchain lead just before they were launched to pursue a new blockchain-based commodity exchange project in Africa.) The venture capitalist Jalak Jobanputra was present at that party. When I mentioned our new book, she asked whether she was in it. When I said that I didn’t think so, she politely pointed out that her name had not appeared in Paul’s and my prior book, The Age of Cryptocurrency, either.
My first thought was, well, sorry, but loads of people weren’t cited; we can’t please everyone. But after pointing out that index contained just a tiny smattering of female names, she explained why she truly deserved to be included. You see, Jobanputra was one of the very first investors in a bitcoin venture. As early as 2013 she was putting money into startups such as Blockchain.info (now known simply as Blockchain), the wallet and data services company that last year announced a $40 million new round of financing from the likes of GV (formerly Google Ventures), Lakestar and billionaire investor Richard Branson.
Like anyone’s at the time, Jobanputra’s investments were a bold bet. She saw an opportunity that only a few visionaries could spot. (I certainly didn’t see the potential of this technology at that time.) And in Jobanputra’s case, it was fueled by a passionate belief in its sweeping social impact, in particular its potential to improve the lives of billions locked out of the global financial system. (That rationale drove her to invest in another female trailblazer: Elizabeth Rossiello, who, in 2013 quit a traditional finance career that had included stints in investment banking for Credit Suisse in Zurich and London to set up shop in Nairobi with a bitcoin-based cross-border payments startup called BitPesa.)
The Age of Cryptocurrency was filled with stories of wild adventurers who’d bet big on bitcoin and on early bitcoin projects, the guys who set the foundation for all that has since come and will come. There was no mention of Jobanputra. Yet she was surely as bold and as important as any of them. The book was well received and earned acclaim – as we hope will be The Truth Machine. But both need more stories like hers.
A vicious circle
Why did we overlook Jobanputra? A simplistic argument is that she hadn’t promoted herself sufficiently. Indeed, I only got to know her after the book was published. But that’s too easy. The reality is that we were part of a vicious circle in which structural barriers make it much harder for women investors, entrepreneurs and innovators to get their stories out and be noticed. Those barriers include being under-represented at conferences and in books, articles and media.
Those barriers often reside in our heads, reinforced by a male-dominated industry that doesn’t challenge the status quo. Well-meaning men will neglect to think sufficiently about these issues because there’s little downside to not doing so. There’s no imperative to break with that status quo. And so, we hit the trifecta: two books with underrepresented stories of women and a conference.
Importantly, women themselves are taking action to overcome these biases. Jobanputra, along with Ro, Rossiello and other women in blockchain such as CoinDesk Advisory Board member Maja Vujinovic, recently gathered in Brooklyn to set up a group called the Collective Future to advocate for diversity in the crypto industry.
— Sandra Ro (@srolondon) February 10, 2018
But this effort will succeed more readily if men like us, who also care about diversity, start tackling their own biases.
And no doubt this column will prompt a backlash from some quarters. But for those who agree with us, this is surely the right moment to act. Unless you’ve been living under rock, you’ll know that the past year has produced a reckoning with the problem of male indifference.
The #MeToo movement is not just about egregious abusers of power like Harvey Weinstein. It’s about ordinary Joes – and Michaels and Pauls – who perpetuate the existing structure by doing too little.
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