9 Men for Every Woman: It's Not a Frat House, It's Bitcoin

A new survey of Bitcoin users highlights why the cryptocurrency needs women now more than ever.

by Jordan Pearson
Jun 10 2015, 7:31pm

Image: Flickr/Clinton Steeds

Bitcoin has long maintained a dubious reputation for being a plaything for white, tech-savvy men. A small survey of 1,000 users in 2013 turned up a 95 percent male majority, for example. Two years on, Bitcoin has reached new heights of media popularity and garnered attention from regulators and industry—but in terms of diversity, it appears as though not much has changed.

In a new survey of 3,514 self-identified Bitcoin users carried out by CoinDesk, only 289 respondents identified as women. Instead, the vast majority identified as white, educated men. Here are the figures: 90.4 percent of respondents identified as male, 65.8 percent as white, 83.4 percent had at least some college or university experience, and 39.4 percent were between the ages of 25 and 34.

Credit: CoinDesk

The figures contained in the report are hardly surprising, but they are disheartening. As heated debates over structural updates that would ensure Bitcoin could scale up to worldwide adoption continue to rage, the cryptocurrency's actual user base hasn't kept up with the rhetoric. This poses serious questions about Bitcoin's future. A worldwide movement can't survive when half of the world's population doesn't actually participate, and the detrimental effects might already be showing.

Despite all the attention Bitcoin's gotten lately—NASDAQ's interest in the underlying technology and New York State's newly unveiled regulations, for example—the cryptocurrency is currently in a development decline.

Contributions to the core Bitcoin code on GitHub—called "commits"—have slowed. At peak times in 2014, the code received upwards of 60 commits per week. In 2015, the highest number of weekly commits has been half of that. The number of full nodes (Bitcoin Core clients) running on the network, which are considered to be the backbone of the system and provide stability and security to Bitcoin, has also declined from roughly 8,000 nodes in 2014 to just under 6,000 right now.

A graph illustrating GitHub commits over the past year. Screengrab: GitHub

The reasons for these circumstances are multifaceted. Fewer GitHub commits could merely suggest that less code updates have been needed as of late, or that efforts have been siphoned to other Bitcoin-related projects like Etherium. But a lack of commits could also reflect an inadequate amount of qualified coders. A lack of full nodes could indicate, well, less people interested in running full nodes on their computers.

Who, exactly, is dropping the ball here? Men, who comprise more than 90 percent of Bitcoin's users, surely. How do you fix this problem? It's about numbers. You need new blood. Where do you get new blood? From people who have been thus far by and large not participated in Bitcoin development: women.

"In terms of sheer numbers, I think it's a crying shame that there are fewer women working in technology, and fewer women working in computer science than back in the 1980s," Rhian Lewis, organizer of London Women In Bitcoin and co-developer of cryptocurrency calculator, told me in an interview. "It's not a problem specific to Bitcoin, either. It's a technology issue in general."

"You're not going to suddenly alter the ratio of cryptography PhDs"

A seemingly innocuous statistic in the CoinDesk report could shed some light on this issue: 68.1 percent of men defined themselves as "techies" compared to just 28.1 percent of women. Bitcoin is pretty hard to even learn about if you don't run in tech-savvy circles, and when so few women consider themselves tech-savvy, that's a problem. The question is, why don't more women think of themselves as "techies"?

"By the time someone has gone to school, done a Master's, and perhaps even done a PhD, you're talking about a pipeline problem," Lewis said. "it would be amazing to see women involved, but you're not going to suddenly alter the ratio of cryptography PhDs."

The main thing to remember is that Bitcoin, for all its high-tech leanings, is essentially a social enterprise that depends on real people working together. Bitcoin's success hinges on who's in, who's out, and who is in control regarding things like mining power. Here, social concerns are paramount and can have incredible effects.

Watch more from Motherboard: Life Inside a Chinese Bitcoin Mine

Here's a concrete example. Bitcoin is in many ways a democracy: making significant changes to the code requires a majority of nodes to cooperate. If men run most of the full nodes in the network—even if there are many women who use Bitcoin—any important decision about the technology will be decided be men.

Even so, these are promising times for women in Bitcoin, and tech more generally, to be sure. Alakanani Itireleng, also known as the "Bitcoin Lady," is on an inspiring mission to bring Bitcoin to Botswana. Attendees at Google's annual tech conference this year noticed that there was actually a line for the women's bathroom, which was unheard of in previous years. Bitcoin startups like BitPesa are being founded by women.

Bitcoin, like all technology, is not divorced from real-world social concerns. To ignore that key point now could be to consign Bitcoin to irrelevancy; a toy for white men. But, then again, maybe it never was.

"People joke about it, but how do we know Satoshi Nakamoto was not a woman?" Lewis said. "It's statistically improbable, but not impossible."