Is Bitcoin Welcoming to Women?

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'What we need to do to get more women in Bitcoin is create a calendar where the women in Bitcoin are scantily clad.'

This suggestion was offered to a woman by a man during casual conversation at a Bitcoin conference. His next suggestion, possibly an attempt to sound more politically correct, was to entice women with a Mother’s Day promotion.

These statements suggest that women are either decorations to be looked at or the mother of a man's child. Perpetuating this stereotype, especially today, shows blatant disregard of women's other attributes and their achievements in the professional world.

"I think there are some incredible women in this space and there are men that realize the importance of having them in the community…but we all just want to be looked at as individuals in the space that are treated with respect,” says Tatiana Moroz, a singer and songwriter who's used her talent to tell Bitcoin's free market economics story.

Moroz is not a technologist, but she's quickly made a name for herself on the Bitcoin circuit, playing at many of the digital currency conferences. She even has her own digital currency, Tatiana Coin, which she plans to use as a kind of loyalty program to promote her music.

She's also one of many women who regularly attends Bitcoin events and observes many of the interactions between men and women.

"I definitely hear a lot of stories…but there are pervs and creeps and misogynists in all industries," Moroz says. Sometimes because Bitcoin seems more idealistic and modern, it’s just a bit unexpected, she says.

Arianna Simpson, a client solutions manager at Facebook who keeps a Bitcoin blog, wrote about her own experience at a New York Bitcoin meet-up in January. She dealt with demeaning comments and unwelcome groping at the event. One attendee told her, "You don’t look like someone who would even know about Bitcoin!”

(To be clear: "You're pretty" is a compliment; "What is a pretty girl doing at a Bitcoin meet-up" is not. The latter assumes that intelligence isn't compatible with physical beauty.)

Simpson's post, titled "This is what it's like to be a woman at a Bitcoin meetup," was not well-received by some of her fellow Bitcoin enthusiasts.

The responses to her post, which was also reprinted by Business Insider and posted to Reddit, were even more misogynistic than her experience at the meet-up. Choice comments included "get over yourself" and "she needs to learn how to take a compliment."  Others called her insecure.

Chauvinistic comments like this happen to every woman. But these instances are not the norm for the Bitcoin community, which is typically a very inclusive group.

"When I first started going to tech conferences in general, it was a bit intimidating... because I thought I'd be brushed off or not taken seriously," says Paige Peterson, a developer and evangelist for MaidSafe, a decentralized Internet platform that is now testing a payment network that allows users to trade an alternative digital token called Safecoins.

Peterson worked in the technology field for several years before joining MaidSafe about two months ago.

Men far outnumber women at technology conferences, but "this is the fault of society, not the technology," Peterson says. The real issue lies in how society teaches gender norms and assigns men and women to specific roles, she says.

Misogynistic attitudes can be especially prevalent in "brainy" pursuits, in which the culture is fueled by entertainment that often casts men as heroes and women as prizes to be won through perseverance even in the face of rejection.

"What people think is gender-neutral may not actually be gender-neutral," says Karen Gifford, chief compliance officer at Ripple Labs. "It's not with any bad intent necessarily; it's just the blinders that build up in an environment that's heavily gendered in one direction or the other."

But while diversity of background, experiences, cultures and perspectives can benefit an industry and business, "I don't think you should artificially pump women into the Bitcoin ecosystem," Peterson says. "I think that'll just slow down the rate of innovation."

There may be no need for artificial injections, as a growing number of women appear to be drawn to the Bitcoin community.

Bitcoin in the Beltway, the Washington, D.C., event held June 20-22 where I met Peterson, had more women on the agenda than many similar events.

Meghan Kellison, one of the organizers of the conference, goes by the name M. K. Lords and is the editor at Bitcoins Not Bombs, an organization that creates publicity campaigns for organizations that want to adopt Bitcoin. She says there are plenty of women in Bitcoin. But they aren't as well-known as the men who have become pseudo-celebrities, such as entrepreneur Andreas Antonopoulos and Gavin Andresen, a Bitcoin core developer.

Antonopoulos, who spoke at the conference several times, has been one of the pioneers in the space for women's equality, creating anti-harassment policies for meet-ups such as the San Francisco Bitcoin Devs. He will only speak at conferences that have and enforce anti-harassment policies and do not allow vendors to have "booth babes"—scantily clad models to draw attention to an exhibitor's booth.

Creating a culture that welcomes women isn't only a social responsibility, it's also an advantageous business practice.

"There's so much information about how successful businesses are when they're co-ed," says Gifford. Having a mix of men and women in a company is just a rational thing to do if you want your business to grow, she says.

Women-led startups do just as well as ones led by men, though they usually operate with one-third less capital, says Lauren Flanagan, managing director at Belle Capital USA during a panel discussion at SXSW in March that was reported by Forbes. Women are more concerned with capital efficiency, she said.

And companies with more than one woman on the board are about 26% more successful than boards with only male representation, according to an August 2012 Credit Suisse research report.

While many people in the Bitcoin community are amenable to the idea of bringing more women into the fold, some resist the idea of actively recruiting them. During the Inside Bitcoins conference in New York in early April, a male entrepreneur said that he shouldn't have to "hold a woman's hand" to get her involved in Bitcoin.

While it's true that you can't force someone into wanting to participate, Ripple's Gifford flips the idea on its head. "Would you increase your company's profitability even if it was work?" she asks. If so, building a co-ed team is one of the things you need to work towards to become a profitable company, she says.

Gifford joined Ripple Labs in January. She previously practiced law in financial services for more than two decades, including a stint at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Bitcoin "is an intersection of two worlds that tend to be more heavily male: financial services and technology," Gifford says. While she thinks the gender balance should have made more progress over the past several decades, Gifford doesn't find the ratio jarring anymore.

But she has noticed a particular problem that has persisted in both fields over the years.

"For many women starting their career in a male-dominated field, the advice they to try and be one of the boys," says Gifford. "And that's great for a while; it's effective in junior roles."

But once a woman takes a leadership role, operating this way becomes more difficult.

"It's hard because not only have they become accustomed to operating behind a mask, but they're also under a lot of scrutiny because they're different," Gifford says. "Which can be a perfect storm of difficulty."

But the responsibility rests on more than the men in the Bitcoin community to apply pressure to other men to behave. There’s also a responsibility that lies with the women to be honest and upfront and demand that they be treated with respect. 

Bailey Reutzel is a reporter for PaymentsSource.

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