This is a photograph of some women enjoying a chat and a drink at a bar in London. You may be surprised to read that it is also a photograph of a Bitcoin meetup group.
I started London Women in Bitcoin with my friend Magda in 2014. From small beginnings, we have grown to more than 100 members, and along with our co-organiser, Neha (who is a developer and co-founder at Bitcoin-focused micropayments startup Smoogs), we have worked hard to ensure that we continue to attract new members and offer interesting content.
Among our number we have talented and informed bloggers and Bitcoin advocates such as Magda, CEOs and COOs from some of London’s hottest tech startups, fintech journalists and also developers and other technologists working in the blockchain space. Most importantly, we provide a welcoming, friendly environment for women who may want to find out more about Bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies or blockchain tech in general.
London is full of blockchain-focused groups: Coinscrum, Proof of Work, and the Ethereum, Counterparty and MaidSafe meetups to name a few. So why, when there are so many general groups in the blockchain and crypto space, do we think it is so important to maintain a meetup exclusively aimed at women? This is on my mind today after a few conversations I had last night, after our meetup had ended.
So, the story that the picture does not tell is that later on, after we had talked about about blockchain-based solar grids, the rights and wrongs of government-sponsored cryptocurrencies, and how to shine in a pitch competition, we walked over to the London Coinscrum meetup, where we all happily spent the rest of the evening chatting to old and new friends until it got to chucking-out time.
Just like almost every other blockchain-focused meetup group, Coinscrum tends to have a lot more men at their events than women. They are super-friendly, nice people who will always welcome noobs, and they do interesting talks in a great venue. So, when I was asked last night why I feel it’s necessary to maintain our women-only group alongside theirs, instead of simply encouraging our members to participate in the mixed evenings, it made me think carefully about the reasons.
Some women have reported bad experiences at tech meetups, and cryptocurrency meetups in particular. Personally, I have not experienced this negative side. I’ve attended dozens — probably hundreds by now — of Bitcoin, Ethereum and fintech meetups in London and Berlin. I’ve been met only with a warm welcome everywhere I’ve been and have been treated with the same respect and kindness I hope I show others. I’m sure this is the case for most people.
But the problem is the public perception of Bitcoin as a “plaything for white, tech-savvy men” and the fact that most meetups tend to look like this. If you’re female and you want to find out about cryptocurrency and blockchain tech, you might first stumble on the wildly popular BitcoinTalk forum, and find this facepalm-inducing, 101-page thread explaining why girls don’t use Bitcoin. And you’d probably give up and think: “Hmm, interesting, but not for me.”
“Not for me” is a powerful deterrent. In many cases, “not for me” isn’t even a conscious reaction. Humans have learned by imitation, from the discovery of fire right through to the billions that are spent each year on advertising and marketing, in the (confirmed) belief that we will identify with the people we see on the screen and aspire to be more like them.
It’s my belief that every time the words “women” and “blockchain” or “cryptocurrency” or “Bitcoin” or “fintech” are juxtaposed in a sentence or phrase, it’s a reminder — subconscious or conscious — that instead of being “not for me”, this amazing, compelling area of technology is for everyone. Some women who have turned up at the group simply to learn more have confessed that they would never have had the courage or even the desire to turn up at to an almost exclusively male group, whom they perceived as being intimidatingly knowledgeable, and ask beginner questions.
(This fear may be misplaced — I’ve been at some events where there has been more like a 25% ratio of women — and also, the chances are that the noob guys there know even less than you do.)
So, why would I care or bother whether women show up to blockchain events or get involved or start learning about the tech? What does it matter if there is not a single woman writing specifications or code or designing the user experience of blockchain applications? Who cares, as long as someone creates these tools for our future?
Let’s be clear about one thing: blockchains are eating the world. There is scarcely going to be a sector that is untouched by this technology. If blockchain now really is, as the received wisdom goes, where the internet was in 1995, there is huge change on the way.
And it is the people who are involved now, who are diving in headfirst and getting their hands dirty, who will dictate where it takes us. The people coding DAPPs at the moment, or brainstorming ideas in corporate innovation labs are the ones who are going to shape the lives we lead in two or three decades from now.
I don’t want to see other women miss out on this groundbreaking stuff just because they don’t get to hear about it or they think “not for me”. And, more importantly, I don’t want the tech products I use in future to suck because they have been conceptualised and created by the narrowest demographic in the world.
If your team is not diverse, it’s not a healthy team and the chances are it won’t create products that work for people in the world who would otherwise use it. Consumers lose out and so does your organisation.
We see it over and over: car seatbelts are designed for the male frame, making women significantly less safe in the case of an accident; the largest manufacturer of artificial hearts makes models that fit 86 per cent of men but only 20 per cent of women; many smartphones and TV remotes are too large for most women to use one-handed.
And it’s not just women who are often not considered by monoculture tech and product teams: think of cosmetics companies who cater inadequately for women of colour, the marketing surveys that deliver skewed results because their Millennial creators have lumped together the entire over-50 demographic in one category, or the cringeworthy, doomed-to-fail marketing campaigns aimed at the young by the exclusively middle-aged.
So that’s why London Women in Bitcoin goes on. We’re a complement to the other meetups, not competition. If people hear the words “Women” and “Bitcoin” together in a sentence and it makes them sit up, and at least one woman challenges her “not for me” inner voice and gets involved in finding out about blockchain tech, then it’s been worth it.
And, of course, it’s also a lot of fun and I’ve met some really amazing people through the group and others like it around of the world, many of whom have gone on to become great friends. Perhaps that’s the best reason of all.