"Bits or GTFO." Image courtesy Pua Pyland, the Bitcoin Wife
When I went to London’s 2013 Bitcoin Expo at the end of last month, the thing that surprised me most of all wasn’t the cryptocurrency’s recent skyward rise to over $1000 a bitcoin, nor was it the unrelenting conviction of most present that Bitcoin would soon take over the world. The thing that most struck me, from the moment I crossed the threshold of the Shoreditch café back room where the gathering took place, was how very few women were present.
As a woman writing on science and technology, I’m used to being in the minority—but this was pretty extreme. Looking around when I first walked in, I was surrounded by men. In the packed room, which must have accommodated hundreds of people, the number of women was in the single figures. One was behind a camera filming the event, and several were quite obviously accompanying male partners. On my own, with blonde hair, red lipstick, and a faux fur coat, I stuck out like a Trekkie at a Star Wars convention.
Taken a little later in the day, this photo from Stacy Herbert (the only woman presenting at the event, and who was included as part of an otherwise all-male panel) gives an idea of the gender imbalance:
Throughout the day, as more people arrived who weren’t quite Bitcoin-obsessed enough for the 9 AM start, I saw a few more female faces—but I’d put the ratio at around 1:10 at the very best. Speaking to a few of my fellow double-X-chromosomed attendees, I asked what had brought them to the conference. One replied simply, “my boyfriend,” and turned away to take photos of her beau posing with Cody Wilson, the libertarian figurehead of 3D-printed gun and Dark Wallet fame. Another said she’d been in the area shopping at the Hugo Boss sale that morning when her boyfriend suggested they come. She asked if I could explain to her what this whole Bitcoin thing was.
To get a feel for whether my experience was somehow anomalous, I took to Bitcoin forums and message boards to see if the male-female divide was quite as obvious there. Of course, it’s impossible to tell how many women own bitcoins, owing to the whole anonymity thing; for all we know, Satoshi Nakamoto could be a woman (though 'Satoshi' is typically a male name). But if the main communities are anything to go by, participation among the female population is exceedingly low. One survey of people who self-identified as Bitcoin users found that a whopping 95.2 percent of respondents were male, while a study by a CoinBlog writer reported that just 2.4 percent of a selection of the Bitcoin Meetup groups’ members were female.
According to the traffic-tracking site Alexa, women are vastly underrepresented on bitcointalk.org, the major Bitcoin discussion forum, and a poll by one forum member found 88.7 percent of respondents identified as male (and of the remaining, 5.3 percent selected “other,” leaving just six percent as female). So rare are women in the community, in fact, that the forums warn members not to do business with “any user blatantly claiming to be female”—because they’re probably a scammer.
It seems that the only Bitcoin community that particularly welcomes female participation is the NSFW subreddit r/GirlsGoneBitcoin. For the uninitiated, it’s a forum where women can post explicit photos of themselves in return for Bitcoin tips. An enterprising response to the burgeoning business of cryptocurrencies to be sure, but hardly a glowing endorsement of women’s role in the Bitcoin-enabled utopia we’ve been promised by Satoshi’s most ardent disciples.
Bitcoins: Just a boys' toy? Photo via Flickr/antanacoins
So why are so few women participating in Bitcoin?
There are a few obvious reasons that Bitcoin wouldn’t attract as many women as men. Firstly, it’s hardly a secret that there’s a big gender gap in the tech sector in general. Fewer women work in STEM fields; fewer women attend tech events; fewer women even have access to the internet.
Some gender disparity in the Bitcoin community can therefore be expected, and that's the reason many people in the space gave me when I asked their thoughts on the gender divide. Bitcoin Expo organiser Alex Breadman was among them. “That said,” he pointed out in an email, “there is less than 15 percent of Bitcoin entrepreneurs that are women, which is lower than the tech average.” While the number of women in tech jobs is depressingly low, it’s not as depressingly low as the figures above.
Then there’s the financial sector to take into account—another field in which women are underrepresented. Why there are so many fewer women than men in these two sectors is a debate for another day, but it stands to reason that when you cross these two fields in something like Bitcoin—a technological and financial innovation—the number of women involved will be significantly lower than the number of men.
Additionally, the broader libertarian community that embraced Bitcoin when it first appeared on the scene also has a reputation as a largely male domain. Put all of these male-dominated sectors together and it’s clear that most of the discussion around Bitcoin, especially in the early days, has included very few women. Many women had probably never heard of Bitcoin until the mainstream media picked up on it this year; a fair few probably still haven’t (a recent poll found that only 40 percent of all Americans knew what Bitcoin was). But of those women who are familiar with the cryptocurrency—and the number must be growing every day—why haven’t they embraced it?
One argument is that women are more averse to financial risk than men. Although there have been studies both for and against this idea, it’s been frequently suggested to me as a reason for women’s hesitation in the Bitcoin sphere, so it’s worth thinking about. Stacy Herbert, co-host of Russian financial broadcast The Keiser Report and an early Bitcoin adopter, pointed to a recent survey by a British bank that found women saved an average of 41 percent of their annual earnings, while men saved just 23 percent. If women are simply more careful with money, that could explain their reluctance to invest in the volatile Bitcoin currency, especially when it was in its infancy.
“Three years ago, Bitcoin was truly a wild west where speculators and miners gunned each other down in broad daylight on the various exchanges of the time (most of those exchanges are now gone); where if you weren't careful or quick on the draw, you could find yourself Zhou Tonged and left for dead in the Bitcoin corral,” said Herbert. “If so, the only thing to do was pick yourself up and mine twice as hard to gain all that had been taken from you. In the very early days, it seems you had to have been either completely mad or too stupid to know any better!”
The prevalence of comments claiming Bitcoin was a con or a Ponzi scheme didn’t help, she said. “I imagine these shrieks kept many women from participating early as, again, I think we're more practical than men are and aren't as willing to part with our fiat savings to get involved with something being dubbed ‘shitcoin,’” she suggested.
Even now, the risks associated with Bitcoin have hardly subsided, regardless of what its devotees try to tell you. Every week we hear of more Bitcoin scams and thefts, and because of the lack of regulation, users have little recourse if their wallets are emptied. That danger is amplified for users who don’t fully understand the technicalities behind the cryptocurrency and how to keep their coins safe—and given the gender discrepancy in tech, women are perhaps more likely to fall into that category. Then there’s the whole it-might-be-like-tulips fear that the Bitcoin bubble will one day burst—a fear abetted by the fact that the currency has already seen wild fluctuations in value.
Pua Pyland, the self-styled "Bitcoin Wife." Photo courtesy Pyland
To investigate the women and Bitcoin mystery further, I reached out to one of the best known female Bitcoin enthusiasts to get her thoughts on why women seem to have missed the party. Pua Pyland, better known as the Bitcoin Wife or Mrs. P, promotes the use of bitcoins among women on her website, which showcases products aimed at women that can be bought with bitcoins. She also started the /r/BitcoinLadies subreddit but after seven months it only has 26 readers, one of whom is me.
(On a side note, it’s a little problematic for some feminists that Pyland, as one of the most visible female Bitcoin presences, identifies herself largely in relation to her husband as the homemaking, mothering, cookie-baking “Bitcoin Wife”—but it’s hardly her duty to represent the everywoman on what is, after all, her personal blog. She says some women have sent her messages chastising her for being "anti-feminism," and states she's not anti-anything. "On the contrary, I'm merely pro-Bitcoin," she said.)
When I asked Pyland why she thought Bitcoin was male-dominated, she echoed the reasons above, and added that the influence of gaming—another male-heavy space—might have helped give men a technical boost in the early days of Bitcoin mining. In an email, she wrote:
When looking at Bitcoin historically, as an emerging technology and financial open-source platform based on the internet, it's really no mystery that there has been a lack of women around here. For one thing, Bitcoin parallels the same trends in the the tech space, where, aside from the outliers, men are generally the early adopters and developers of technologies, and women follow suit. I think this is especially true for Bitcoin when looking at the early days when adoption was fueled by GPU mining, which required video cards and PC gaming hardware. And who typically uses high-end video cards? Gamers…another arena dominated by men. This is then further exacerbated by the volatile monetary side of Bitcoin, where women are typically risk-adverse and less likely to invest. And socially, the Bitcoin community has existed on thread boards, IRC, and Reddit - all places that are notoriously not very female-friendly environments.
That last point is worth particular consideration, because it’s the one that individuals in the Bitcoin space have the most power to change. Lowly Bitcoin miners and traders can’t very well take it upon themselves to overthrow the patriarchal norms that have traditionally locked women out of the tech and finance sectors overnight, but they can stop being dicks on the internet.
Anyone who’s spent time on pretty much any subreddit or internet forum will know that it can be a pretty hostile place for anyone with a vagina. The male-dominated /r/Bitcoin and the BitcoinTalk forums are no exception. Of course, not all men contribute to the hostility, and some should be commended for trying to maintain a welcoming atmosphere. (Although they shouldn't need to be commended for what should be basic human decency.) But largely, the vibe is pretty misogynistic.
I ran a quick search on BitcoinTalk to see what forum users might have to say on the issue of women and Bitcoin and found a few threads around the issue. “Sad to say but most women are more concerned about gossip etc rather than revolutionary ideas,” one user suggested. “Women are too busy shopping and grooming, to be interested in stuffs like cryptography, monetary systems, economics or politics,” another ventured. “Women don't need bitcoins to stay at home all day, pregnant, doing laundry and cooking dinner,” said a third.
Those are just token examples, taken from three separate discussions, but they illustrate the general outdated sexist attitudes that all too often pervade online communities. There are of course also plenty more base offensive comments to be found that directly target female users (like such creative gems as “Get back in the kitchen” and “TITS or GTFO”). Suffice to say it’s not exactly a hotbed of gender equality.
And should it have to be? If men want to use Bitcoin and women don’t, is that a problem? If Bitcoin is to really take off, then I would argue that yes, it is a problem. In fact, I’d say that Bitcoin needs women.
Just 'cause some women make great Bitcoin cookies doesn't mean they should stay in the kitchen. Photo courtesy Pua Pyland
The problem Bitcoin seems to have at the moment is that everyone wants it to be a currency, but for now it’s largely treated as a commodity. The more people that take part in Bitcoin, including women, the more likely it could actually become a broadly accepted alternative to cash, cards, and PayPal. After all, the definition of a currency is “a system of money in general use in a particular country,” and you can’t exactly say that a currency largely ignored by 50 percent of the population is in general use.
Pyland agrees that women will be key players in the expansion of Bitcoin. “Having more women involved is crucial to Bitcoin's success, if we want to see mainstream adoption,” she says. “We hold the power of the pursestrings, we constitute the fastest growing segment of the small-business owner community, and it has been proven that the diversity women bring to the tech space boosts innovation and creativity. Hello perfect bitcoin user!”
She makes some good points. According to a Forbes report earlier this year, women across the world control some $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, and that’s estimated to rise to $28 trillion in the next five years. Meanwhile, a Nielsen report shows that women in the US outspend men everywhere except convenience stores and gas stations. If they aren’t interested in using Bitcoin, its reach will remain severely limited.
On the other side of the commercial equation, women also make up a lot of potential Bitcoin merchants. And until merchants start widely accepting Bitcoin, its efficacy will again be restricted. “Bitcoin needs to be used by the average shops on the street, so getting these merchants using Bitcoin is the priority,” says Breadman, the Bitcoin Expo organiser. “I'm sure a very high percentage of these merchants will be women, so yes we definitely need them to be competing in the marketplace asap.”
For her part, Herbert emphasizes the point that more and more women are becoming small business owners. “Regarding the future, the number of self-employed women in the UK is rising at nearly three times the rate of men. And 30 percent of all businesses in the US are owned by women.”
She suggests that Bitcoin will therefore naturally be adopted by more and more women, but these statistics don’t seem to be enough to attract a strong female crowd to the cryptocurrency just yet. Part of that may be a simple technical and educational matter, which could be solved as women become better acquainted with the Bitcoin technology, or as Bitcoin itself becomes easier to use. Breadman reckons the divide will balance out when setting up a Bitcoin business becomes as easy as opening an eBay account, and Pyland believes women need to be more vocal in their Bitcoin appreciation to encourage others to get involved.
Women across the world control some $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, and that’s estimated to rise to $28 trillion in the next five years.
Herbert adds that from her experience at conferences, smooth-talking libertarian activist Cody Wilson seems to have attracted a small legion of younger women to the community, which is something I noticed at the Bitcoin Expo too. “At least they're there,” she says.
I’d love to see more women get into Bitcoin, and men encouraging them to do so. For one, Bitcoin, with all its virtues of anonymity and decentralization, could offer women a liberating alternative to existing financial structures, which have been traditionally controlled by men (just look at the board members of any bank). As Herbert says, “With Bitcoin, there is no old boys club to give preferential treatment to one group of elite insider men, while discriminatory rates and treatment to the multitudes who aren't insiders.”
That said, if women continue to be alienated from the cryptocurrency, this appeal could soon diminish. Bitcoin may not be controlled by anyone per se, but if men are creating the payment solutions, running the exchanges, curating the conferences, and dominating the discussions, it could quickly lose its liberating edge for women, and be discarded as just another boys’ toy. When MRA guys like this get internet airplay with views that Bitcoin could bring about the "downfall of feminism" (spoiler: his argument doesn't really make any sense), it's not exactly encouraging for women to get involved. And that would be bad for everyone who likes the idea of the decentralized currency.
Because it may just be that the future of Bitcoin depends on women. If it's to become more than a technical curiosity—a geeky hobby that once made a few teenage coders rich, to the general bemusement of the rest of the world—it quite simply needs a broader range of people to join in and push for widespread use of Bitcoin as an actual currency. The more different people demand Bitcoin services, develop Bitcoin projects, and even lobby for Bitcoin to maintain its defining features in the face of regulation, the more likely it is to stick around.
With women, Bitcoin could see wide adoption across different demographics and become a truly global payment network. Without them, it could easily remain limited in scope, the curious coinage of a tech nerd sausagefest.