Wall Street Meets Pepe: Cryptocurrency Is a Bro’s World
Bitcoin was meant to challenge the financial establishment. So why is it such a boys' club?
Illustration by Ben Thomson
Whoever Satoshi Nakamoto is, he’s probably not a woman. Which is a shame, given the mythical Bitcoin founder’s utopian ethos. Digital currency once promised a purer way to pay for goods and services on the internet that would bypass the corrupt, and incidentally extremely dude-heavy, financial establishment. Unfortunately, Bitcoin and its imitators now roundly resemble the Wall Street institutions they once rejected. For one thing, peer-to-peer technology is too complex for most casual users of the internet, necessitating the use of for-profit exchange services like Coinbase. For another, crypto is a total brofest.
Bitcoin is where the boys are, and cryptocurrency might be more male-dominated than any online or offline subculture currently in existence. According to Google Analytics, a startling 97 percent of people engaging with the Bitcoin community are male, and women make up only around five to seven percent of cryptocurrency users globally. According to Forbes, in 2017 Bitcoin investors accumulated $85 billion in wealth. Women shared only $5 billion of it.
All of which means that men in their mid to late twenties are the public face of the crypto movement—at least in its current iteration. No women feature in a 2017 analysis of cryptocurrency’s “movers and shakers”. No women, apparently, qualified for investinblockchain.com’s top ten list of 2018 cryptocurrency personalities to watch. The New York Times Style section this week published a surreal photo story chronicling the success of insanely youthful crypto millionaires living in Silicon Valley “crypto castles” and drinking rosé. The headline? “Everyone is Getting Hilariously Rich and You’re Not”. But the NYT story does not feature everyone. It features, exclusively, twenty-something tech bros. Which isn’t to say it’s an inaccurate representation of Bitcoin’s biggest winners so much as a depressing one.
WATCH: Aamer Rahman explores the gentrification of Australia's suburbs
Due to a range of systemic factors, women are under-represented in the fields of computer science as well as finance, and developing or investing in cryptocurrency requires knowledge and understanding of both. But there’s an additional, more outwardly subtle, set of circumstances that make crypto even less woman-friendly than your average Palo Alto incubator, and these are found within its feverishly enthusiastic online communities. Many of the internet’s discussions around cryptocurrency take place on the troll-infested bitcointalk or Reddit threads, or on chat apps like Discord, where “Wall Street bro meets Pepe the Frog,” as one female friend of mine, a casual crypto enthusiast and regular /r/ trawler, described it to me with a shudder and an eye roll.
These forums, currently the most reliable and searchable source of information for crypto newcomers and addicts alike, can be immediately intimidating for women. And really, for anyone unfamiliar with the money meme parlance that has developed in the four fraught years since a chance typo immortalised the word “HOLDING” as “HODLING” and invented a brand new financial language.
“When it comes to women learning about cryptocurrency and investing or trading, I don’t see significant barriers—anybody can access this information and build their capability, regardless of gender,” says Anna North, who runs the advice blog Women in Crypto. She founded the site after realising that cryptocurrency publications rarely, if ever, interviewed female experts in the field.
“[But] there are significant barriers for women who want to participate in discussions with their peers in online cryptocurrency communities… these spaces are overwhelmingly male-dominated in terms of membership demographics, and the culture can feel hypermasculine at times.”
It’s an understatement. The seedy cadence of crypto culture can verge on satire. Social media influencers like Crypto King and Lords of Crypto bequeath their advice and insights to a sea of grateful “thanks bro” commenters. Some online communities actually take the next logical step and outlaw women altogether—like the popular men’s only Australian Facebook group Crypto For Blokes, which counts a rapidly-growing membership of around 20,000. The first house rule listed in the Crypto For Blokes description is “Don’t dog the boys.” That’s Australian slang for “What happens in the group, stays in the group. This information is just for us.” It’s a safe space for an already very safe demographic, Ethereum crashes aside.
Why found a men’s-only crypto group when crypto is already built for men? The answer is a little sinister, and a little obvious. Crypto For Blokes is an offshoot of a slightly larger and ostensibly gender-neutral group, Crypto Hub, which was experiencing some... tensions. “The males/females were clashing and males were making unwanted advances on females.. so we split them up,” Troy, co-admin of both Crypto Hub and Crypto For Blokes, tells me. “[It] was to keep the community feeling like it was an area they can support each other. Instead of being too politically correct and having the group go down the same path of every other group.”
Troy has contemplated the gender disparity in crypto culture, and concludes that women just aren’t all that interested in the tech. “It's a male dominant industry at the moment, and that's most likely due to the risk factor involved,” he says. So women are too risk averse to bother with digital currency? “That’s how I would see it.”
When pressed, Troy “completely agrees” that other factors might be holding women back from investing in cryptocurrency. He adds that if members of Crypto For Blokes make sexist remarks within the group, “We boot those guys instantly.” Yet when I joined Crypto For Blokes—you don’t have to be too tech-savvy to get past a Facebook group admin, ladies—I did find the conversations I expected. The ones that make me feel like much of the internet, in addition to much of real life, is happening in a meeting room that I wasn’t invited to enter.
One thread linked out to a blog post wondering why more women weren’t buying digital currency, and warning that lack of female participation would hold back the movement or maybe even lead to its demise. “Men extract resources from the world, women extract resources from men. Simple as that. Wall Street is also dominated by men and so is the tech industry,” responded one commenter.
“11 percent of the world’s billionaires are female. That says lots about their ability to make rational financial decisions,” added another.
“Women are risk averse by nature bet there’s not many playing on the stocks either, stupid fucking article,” wrote another.
“A SJW minefield!” someone else agreed. “Dare I suggest that the field of cryptocurrency and day trading doesn’t come up as the first thing in the mind of most women and hence is probably why there isn’t an equal sex mix in the space?”
Most commenters implied that women were making a firm decision to stay away from cryptocurrency; that it simply wasn’t an area of interest for them. In the words of one very active member, “If crypto could be converted into something like Candy Crush or Bubble Witch or whatever then the ladies would be crushing it HARD!”
In another popular post, someone linked to a helpful video where a female crypto enthusiast outlines the basics of investing. He lamented that it lacked “sandwiches and tits”, then added a warning to the post when men started tagging their female partners and encouraging them to watch: “Don’t tag your two holes in a Blokes group.”
In acrimonious threads, men often referred to each other as women in order to insult them.
Elsewhere on the internet, women have chosen to form their own safe spaces in which to debate the merits and potential of blockchain technology. Crypto For Blokes does have a female counterpart, Crypto For Chicks, but with only 340 members. A better example is the 2000-member strong Crypto Goddesses. As per the group’s constitution: “Many women feel more comfortable in an environment where we can speak without the risk of being downgraded for our gender, which is something very common in most techy groups… as we've seen lately, many women come here because they're tired of the underlying sexism in some of these groups.”
These women-only spaces are hardly set up to gossip about men or complain about experiences of abuse—they’re focused on sharing tips and tutorials, offering up words of support during periods of market correction, and organising IRL meet ups. “Of course these separate groups for women shouldn’t be necessary, but there definitely is still a demand for them at the moment,” says Anja Schuetz. She’s an ambassador for rising altcoin DASH, as well as a cryptocurrency mentor and founder of the Conscious Crypto Community—which isn’t exclusive to women, but currently consists of entirely women members. Schuetz says female demand for safe, accessible information sources about cryptocurrency is getting much stronger.
“Women are coming in in droves now—it just might not be very visible to the outside world yet. They might lurk in male-dominated online groups behind gender-neutral nicknames and just observe and learn...Many of them educate themselves on crypto secretly, without telling anyone in their family—especially their husbands.”
This latter group is a fascinating one. Schuetz has observed that alongside twenty-something female coders, many older women in their 40s and 50s are showing an interest in digital currency. “They have lived in centralised systems for long enough to understand their limitations and downsides, and desire something better for themselves and their children… Their motivation is safety, while the younger generation is probably motivated more by financial freedom.”
While they might be outnumbered, there are plenty of powerful women with a deep interest in and understanding of cryptocurrency. Frequently, they’re using their platform to help others navigate the complex gender politics that affect the burgeoning blockchain tech industry. A Medium post from former Coinbase employee Linda Xie outlines the common challenges faced by women attending in-person crypto events (incidences where “a man introduces himself to the other men in the group but ignores the women”, or “acts surprised to discover a woman knows about cryptocurrencies”) as well as small steps men can take to improve the online and offline crypto experience for women (basic stuff like “Call someone out when they are being blatantly sexist” or “If you notice a woman being disregarded, please make them feel included.”) MIT academic and director at Digital Currency Group Meltdem Demirors publishes an interview series dedicated to the stories of women in digital currency called Women in Blockchain. A hugely popular Twitter account, Crypto Chicks, offers up free investment advice. Female tech experts like Yale and Stanford academic Elizabeth Stark are also pushing the potential of Blockchain beyond Bitcoin, with start ups like Lightning.
But mostly, crypto’s women are less seen than heard. Which feels like a potentially massive problem. Especially since, according to Deloitte, 10 percent of global GDP will be built on blockchain applications well within the next ten years. Tech analyst Duncan Stewart outlines, in an insightful LinkedIn essay, how the fact that 95 percent of investors in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are men makes their future that much more uncertain.
Peel back its complex layers of tech and cryptocurrency is at core a simple and optimistic vision for the world’s financial future. One that has every chance of failing, or might even be crashing down already. Its users should be begging for as many people as possible to get involved, regardless of gender. “If women do not get more involved then crypto will never go mainstream and the concept of decentralisation will not spread,” says Schuetz. “After all, women make up 50 percent of the population. So everyone in favour of crypto and a decentralised world should inspire women to join and make it as easy as possible for them.”
It’s that initial lack of ambition that gets to me, though. If blockchain is our future, the people who invented it have somehow imagined the future without women. Even within the most niche anti-mainstream corners of the deep dark internet, where for many years almost anything has seemed gloriously possible, we have limited our definition of utopia to a place where men can buy anything they want without ceding an ounce of control.
Follow Kat on Twitter