Sunday, 12 January 2014

Crypto-Patriarchy: The problem of Bitcoin's male domination

(Note: This is based on a talk I first gave at London Bitcoin Expo 2013)

Imagine a scenario 10 years from now in which Bitcoin has managed to establish itself as an important global currency, supported by a myriad of Bitcoin companies, trade associations, and educational institutions. Now imagine the board meetings of those organisations. What will their demographic breakdown be? Will it resemble this, or this, or this?

It's no secret that the directorships of large FTSE 100 or S&P 500 companies are overwhelmingly dominated by men, and white men at that. This is not just due to random chance, or men's innate brilliance. This is due to our society having a lingering, systematic male bias built upon hundreds of years in which men have had the most access to job opportunities, educational opportunities, political rights, and (perhaps most importantly) cultural encouragement to actually seek those positions. This has helped men build capital, skills and to normalise the idea that they should dominate those industry sectors that command the highest market values (not to mention government positions and academia).

I clearly put a negative spin on that, but I am aware that some people (such as traditional conservatives) see nothing wrong with the idea of the overlord male figure, watching over woman and child (and society) like a sometimes-benevolent-sometimes-wrathful authoritarian god. It particularly disturbs me though, when I detect this domination seeping into areas that are supposed to be challenging traditional structures. Such as the Bitcoin community.

Crypto-patriarchy: Gender bias in Bitcoin demographics

I first started thinking about the problem of crypto-patriarchy when I was asked to speak at a the London Bitcoin Expo, which had an epic line-up of over 15 male speakers. Faced with such a blatant wall of testosterone, I contacted the organiser and asked him why this was the case. He told me that he'd tried, but couldn't find any women to speak. I sent a few emails to people deeply involved in the bitcoin scene and asked them if they knew any women involved. 'Pretty much no' was the answer.

Then I realised that all but two of the 30 people who have used bitcoin to buy my book have been male. This is in contrast to sales I've made in other alternative currencies - such as time credits and local currencies - which have included far more women.

UCL researcher Lui Smyth conducted a survey of the Bitcoin community and found 95% to be male. This rings true to my experience of the London Bitcoin Expo, which felt like - to use an academic term - a 'cockfest' (echoed by Victoria Turk's observations about the event). Out of the 381 people signed up here, only around 10% are women. I used to work in financial derivatives brokering, a male-dominated world if ever there was one, but in my anecdotal experience Bitcoin seems even more male-dominated than traditional finance. And of those women that are involved, they remain hugely under-represented on the panels at Bitcoin conferences.

There are also obvious cases of bigotory towards women in the Bitcoin scene. Check out this comment by a paragon of humility on Bitcointalk: "Most [women] just don't know jack shit about bitcoins, and that's okay... they will just marry all the men who are bitcoin millionaires", followed by a picture of an abused woman with the caption 'Women deserve equal rights... and lefts' (aka left-hooks). Wow. (Update 24th Jan: For further examples of such behaviour see 'What it's like to be a women at Bitcoin Meetup' by Facebook's Arianna Simpson)

Why should we care? A rare chance to make something different

Aside from 1) the obvious issue of injustice, and 2) the fact that there's something wrong when an apparently revolutionary technology seems to receive lukewarm reception from people who make up 51% of the world's population, it's also 3) incredibly boring hanging around in scenes with only men (especially if they're the type of men who only like to hang around other men).

Furthermore, if something is not done about it, men's first-mover advantage will set in. They'll accumulate the capital and skills and set the tone of the culture. And yes, the boards of bitcoin companies will be male-dominated in 10 years time.

Bitcoin's community though, is still new, and it still has a rare opportunity to prove that it's cutting edge in every sense of the word, inclusive as well as technologically advanced (not just something that some people get very rich off... do I sound idealistic?), but to do so there needs to be reflection on barriers to inclusivity.

So what are the causes?

I wanted to get to the bottom of this, so I threw out the question above to that giant decentralised think-tank Twitter. I got a range of explanations back from people (admittedly mostly men). Let's go through some of those.

Explanation 1: Historical chance ('Guys started it, and brought their friends')

Kenny suggested that the reason was that men just happened to be the first to jump on board, and that the scene was built from that basis. He implies a kind of historical path-dependency to the process. We might construct a counterfactual history: It's plausible that if Bitcoin had been started by a group of female scientists at MIT, more women would have subsequently got involved via peer effects and role models. (Strangely enough, in all the speculations about the figure of Satoshi Nakomoto, almost nobody has suggested that she might have been a woman.)

Explanation 2: Inherent masculinity (the 'boys and their toys' explanation)

The obvious next possible explanation is that there is something intrinsic to Bitcoin that simply appeals to men. Tom here actually had a psychoanalytic explanation:

Here's another light-hearted Freudian explanation. Maybe though, there's something to this. Bitcoin evangelists frequently claim that it's an apolitical value-free protocol that doesn't exclude anyone, but perhaps there is some inherent 'male-ness' within the design, or perhaps even within the choice of imagery or language used by the original community to promote it ('the aesthetic').

The more popular theory though, is that Bitcoin is 'risky', and that it thus 'takes balls' to get involved because of its situation, being volatile and semi-illegal. One can imagine men - feeling emasculated by their desk jobs - baying for (a relatively safe) adventure, like a digital version of Fight Club, jockying for position in an ego-driven goldrush. This same myth of 'the risk-taking trader' is what spreadbetting companies exploit to sell their services, beautifully exemplified by this utterly wank video.

Finally, there's the classic "men just enjoy technology more", or "men are just more analytical". This again suggests that the reason lies not in social construction of gender roles (see Explanation 5 below), but in some intrinsic biological propensity of men to love machines, code, analysis, leadership, or pretty much anything that is also strangely correlated with also being able to make large amounts of money (yay, we naturally become rich through our inherent nature!)

Explanation 3: Female disdain for Bitcoin ('why would I want to use it?')

The flip side of the explanation that men are naturally drawn to Bitcoin, is the idea that women are repelled by it. One version of this argument is that women find it stupid or lame or juvenile, and that they have better things to do with them time than waste energy on pointless currency speculation (you find a similar argument with women and computer games). This Twitter respondent here certainly feels that way.

Contrary to the notion that somehow men are more analytical or 'rational', several woman have pointed out to me that there's not much you can really do with Bitcoin right now, and that they're sceptical of it because they're more pragmatic than men, better able to override their own egos and see through their own hype. Indeed, even the much-touted notion that Bitcoin allows you to escape the watchful eyes of the NSA carries with it a slightly egotistical belief that the NSA would somehow care what you're doing.

Explanation 4: The growing culture of anarcho-capitalist brutalism

Ok, so let's get more controversial. Tune and Eric suggested that women are repelled by Bitcoin, not because of them thinking it's stupid, but by the large numbers of libertarian/anarcho-capitalists in the scene, and the increasingly aggressive culture that surrounds it.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy some elements of the balls-to-the-wall bravado of the libertarian ethos, and it makes for a decent self-help philosophy. But, it can also have the side-effect of attracting those who already feel empowered (or who feel entitled to power). Let's not beat around the bush: in its hardest right-wing formulations it is a philosophy for why being individually powerful relative to others is also morally right, carrying a certain brutalism, and a winner-takes-all, screw-the-weak callousness which is more likely to take root with someone already thinking in an aggressive patriarchal frame. I always sense that it naturally appeals to those who feel they are on the cusp of power that they are entitled to, but that has not yet fully come due... like 32 year old men for example.

Let's face it - Ayn Rand ain't a feminist hero. Not only did Rand state that "an ideal woman is a man-worshipper", but Randian libertarianism glorifies the myth of a Greek deity holding the world up on HIS shoulders. Later scientists actually discovered that the world held itself together - and that deities themselves were constructions built by ordinary people - but the John Galt myth persists, and being around so many people who have a belief that the world should rightfully be dominated by those who are most powerful, well-educated or aggressive enough to claw their way up the ladder, probably isn't that welcoming for say... many women, ethnic minorities, or pretty much anyone that's experienced the brunt of being on the wrong side of power historically.

(Additional note 17th January: For an example of this mentality, check out this post by a newly minted Bitcoin baron, thinly masquerading as a story of societal empowerment whilst dripping in triumphalist, patronising scorn for his girlfriend, her 'dumb friends' and the female coffee barista who is too stupid to have 'got in early' like him. Classic quote: "Unlike some of the other early ones, I fortunately — God is merciful — do not have a wife. What I have is a long-term girlfriend, and I’m under no legal obligation to spend any of my hoard to impress her dumb friends.")

(Side note: Interestingly, women are pioneers in the so-called sharing economy, which conservative Milo Yiannopoulos slated as an "emasculating, dispiriting and demotivating" realm of insipid do-gooders. Poor Milo, frightened by the thought of his manhood being threatened by people actually wanting to co-operate and share stuff.)

Explanation 5: The cultural dynamics of the technology scene

Antonie here offers this apparently self-explanatory reason for crypto-patriarchy. He's not unique in holding this viewpoint. It's frequently repeated, not just about Bitcoin, but about the entire technology sector. This is a complex issue that I cannot do justice to in a single post, but it raises the question about whether crypto-patriarchy is actually due to something intrinsic to Bitcoin, or whether it is just a localised version of a much more widespread problem of women not being culturally encouraged to get involved in technology.


It's an issue that this article addresses very well. Consider the imagery of the magazines above. Women's magazines almost never promote interest in technology as normal, whereas men's magazines always do. The key question here is whether such magazines are presenting a descriptive account of the world ("we merely reflect what women want to see"), or a normative one ("Oh, and we implicitly reinforce the idea that what we project is normal, or how things OUGHT to be").

Descriptively though, it's inaccurate that women are 'not into' technology. During the world wars, for example, historically constructed gender roles were disrupted as women took up industrial jobs (leading to a backlash after men returned home from wars). And as Alice Bell and Georgina Voss note, "Whilst programming was originally ‘woman’s work’, it morphed into a male dominated field where hiring practices actively discriminated against women, setting up the straw man of the geeky, asocial male coder".

Normatively, of course, the idea that it's not "women's natural place" to be involved in technology runs into a conflict of interest: It's strangely convenient for men that women are naturally 'not interested' in getting involved in anything associated with power, isn't it? It reminds me a bit of the apartheid history of my home country South Africa, where apparently black people 'didn't have an aptitude' for doing maths or science, so were trained to do things like, um, minimum wage mine labouring.

"Nobody's stopping you": Negative Freedom and the Moshpit Effect


When pushed about this issue, some Bitcoin enthusiasts irritatedly say "nobody's stopping women from joining". 'Nobody is stopping you' is the classic articulation of negative freedom, and its problems are best exemplified by the moshpit. Nobody is stopping you from entering the moshpit, but you're only likely to enter if you feel encouraged to, or if you feel you'll be free of victimisation and subtle disapproval. It's the same feeling a young woman feels walking past a pub full of leery men eyeing her. Nothing's stopping you entering, except that condescending projection of de-facto power the men implicitly thrive upon. 'Come in darling... if you dare'.

I personally love moshpits - and perhaps we need such spaces in society for men to vent their excess aggression - but there's no doubting that they are wired towards disenfranchising women of their place on the dance-floor. Sure, you occasionally get the punk-rocker riotgrrrl who sets out to prove that she outdo the boys, but the parameters of the social conversation are very clearly set by the male action. The stark fact is that most women will simply be barged out of the way, repelled by the sweaty oafs, and just retreat to watch the band from the outskirts.
Moshpits are a comparatively harmless example of the problems of negative freedom, limited to certain ritualistic times and places. But if the principles of the moshpit are found in what is supposed to be an inclusive global exchange system, you've got problems. I think that Bitcoin is turning into a covert form of monetary partriarchy. It may define itself against a status quo, but if you're going to challenge one power structure, don't make it at the expense of accepting another. You don't dig big government and big banks? Why then tolerate male domination?

The myth of apolitical neutrality


The comeback from the hard libertarian is likely to be that Bitcoin is an apolitical commodity, 'free from intervention', that 'everyone's free to join', that 'we're all adults', that it's neutral, and that they have no time for wishy-washy political correctness.

The average problem with the average libertarian though (and by this I mean someone who comes to such ideals not via a critical intellectual process, but because they like the sound of it), is that they're hypersensitive towards recognising overt forms of power - like the bouncer standing at the nightclub door - but have muted ability (or desire) to recognise implicit forms of power, the subtle structures of exclusion that actually do most of the work in maintaining a status quo.

They assume that in the absence of the bouncer there's a level playing field. 'There's no bouncer stopping you entering'. They fail to see that most people will be repelled from the nightclub not by the bouncer, but by things like a lack of money, or a lack of cultural access, or by the perception that they don't belong there. The Ritz doesn't even need bouncers. Those without power naturally shrink away from it. Or, in the immortal words of Withnail:


Indeed, in the context of a non-level playing field, not making an overt effort to include is just a subtle (albeit non-deliberate) form of exclusion. As Howard Zinn puts it:
" ... it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now."
When men say that women are just different, or just not interested, it's normally just a convenient mask for the fundamental lack of concern about whether they're included. If the discussants on this forum are to be taken seriously, it seems that women's current designated role in the Bitcoin community appears to be as cheerleaders for the men, girlfriends of Bitcoin millionaires, or singers of songs of the Bitcoin heroes (no disrespect intended towards the musicians). To my knowledge, the only site focused on Women & Bitcoin is The Bitcoin Wife, a great site, but focused mostly on the concept of women as (married) consumers.

And while I've had pushback from women in the Bitcoin scene who say most of the guys are friendly, I also question how much someone could raise an issue of discrimination before being frowned upon as an unwelcome element. This is a big problem in mainstream finance, where women often don't report discrimination for fear of being seen as 'whiners' (why do I keep thinking of Stockholm Syndrome?).

So, what should be done? Combating Bitcoin inequality

The material from this article is drawn from my talk at the London Bitcoin Expo. After my talk I was approached by a man of African descent who was working as the doorman. He thanked me for addressing the issue. My topic of gender exclusion resonated with forms of exclusion he'd experienced in his own life. He'd been standing all day watching comparatively wealthy white men talk about the earth-shattering potential of BTC.

It's important to stress though, that this problem is found throughout society, not just in Bitcoin. All sorts of groups are marginalised from the broader technology scene (for an interesting, semi-conservative take on that, see 'Silicon Chasm: The class divide on America's cutting edge'). Interestingly, one technology area that does have a more inclusive vibe is ICT4D, which explicitly defines itself by a deliberate attempt to include women and poorer communities in technologies that are otherwise prone to being the preserve of elites making themselves wealthier.

It's also important to stress though, that I'm not claiming there is a deliberate attempt on the part of men to exclude others. People with privilege are frequently prone to seeing the world as a flat, level playing field, and it takes practice for them to see the hidden barriers that others face on a day-to-day basis. So, here are a few things I personally wish the Bitcoin (and wider tech) community would implement:
  1. I wish the community would stop denying that there is a problem
  2. I wish the community would stop repeating self-serving dogma like 'women don't like tech'
  3. I wish the community would stop having all male panel discussions - no wonder women don't want to get involved if they're constantly faced with a wall of male faces
  4. I wish the community would make a collective and concerted effort to identify, build up and showcase female role models 
Similar dynamics are found when considering ethic minority youth in countries like the UK. The old successful man throws his hands in the air and says "Why don't black teenagers express any interest in a career in law?". Um, have you ever thought that maybe they don't relate to people like you, don't feel included by people like you, cannot imagine themselves being like you, and mostly view lawyers as being figures of white oppression? Developing role models is vital to developing people's desire to participate.

So yes, can we break out of the passive negative freedom mode of "nobody's stopping you", and enter into an active positive freedom mode, which involves deliberately seeking inclusion, and deliberately building up people's capacity to act on their potential freedom? And, if this doesn't happen, think about how dreary, bloated and conservative it's going to be in 10 years time.

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