The world of investing has long been accused of being a male-dominated “old-boys club”.
Women in this environment frequently complain that they are frozen out, treated badly or have to work harder than men to make good.
So you would have thought that the 21st century’s developing fintech scene might have levelled the playing field between the sexes.
However, evidence suggests the rush to online finance platforms and investments has done nothing to boost equality.
Instead, the digitally driven world of artificial intelligence, Bitcoin and blockchain is as sexually unbalanced as the banking, property and commodity markets industries that preceded it.
Estimates of how much of Bitcoin’s value is in female hands range from 3% to 7%, though data from the Coin Dance platform suggests women hold just under 5.3% of the cryptocurrency’s worth.
It’s a nerd’s world
Explanations for the lack of women in cryptocurrencies vary, but even many within the community say the problems began with its inception.
Bitcoin and blockchain, which underpins most cryptocurrencies, were developed by the probably pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto and based on the “nerdy” hard mathematics subjects of cryptography, data mining and computer science.
The lack of women in cryptocurrencies is tied to the larger issue of how few women there are in tech and finance generally, according to Angela Walch, a law professor and research fellow at University College London’s Centre for Blockchain Technologies.
“Given that cryptocurrency sits at the intersection, this is exacerbated,” Walch says.
The tech industry is renowned for gender discrimination when it comes to recruiting, retaining, paying and promoting women.
Given all this, it is not hard to understand why many of the early followers of cryptocurrencies were mostly male games designers and programmers.
But this techie group was swiftly joined by others who were attracted by Bitcoin’s ability to transfer large sums of money across borders while avoiding the anti-money laundering countermeasures of traditional banks.
As well as libertarians advocating less state control over people’s lives, this latter cohort of adherents included criminals and terrorists. Such shady links have been mooted by some as further reason for the small proportion of women using and investing in cryptocurrencies.
But a third reason may be the most likely explanation, combining as it does elements of the first two: and that is, the world of cryptocurrencies and fintech is plain, old-fashioned sexist.
Sexism and fintech
Carol van Cleef, a legal expert who specializes in tech, money laundering and compliance, said that when she attended the 2016 North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami, few of the 1,600 attendees were women.
“The night before the conference there was a cocktail party up on the rooftop hotel overlooking the ocean,” van Cleef told website Technical.lyDC. She had noticed only five women among the 300 or 400 delegates at the event before she spotted something else.
“It was a woman who passed me painted in gold wearing nothing but three [sticky notes],” van Cleef said. “As people would say, ‘that’s sort of expected.’”
But such behaviour is becoming unacceptable and the fintech and other investment communities are increasingly under scrutiny over their ethical standards.
The US film industry, following the #MeToo campaign triggered by allegations of sexism in Hollywood, as well as the UK property industry after the Financial Times’ revelations about standards of behaviour at an annual charity fundraiser, are two other prominent examples.
Fixing the imbalance
But despite the male dominance within the sector, there are women who are working to make it more representative.
Women who have taken the lead in the industry include Perianne Boring, founder and president of the blockchain industry group the Chamber of Digital Commerce, and Elizabeth Stark, co-founder and chief executive of Lightning, which is working to speed up blockchain transactions.
Boring, in particular, has been outspoken about why more women in cryptocurrencies could help boost them into the mainstream.
“The Bitcoin industry has been punished for the lack of women,” she told website Moneyish in December. “Women are naturally better communicators and on a mass scale, people don’t understand what Bitcoin is.
“The perception is skewed and it won’t be accepted as a legitimate technology unless we find a way to get this imbalance sorted,” Broing said.
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Other inequalities, such as the lack of venture capitalist support for female-led startups, also deter women.
But the spread of blockchain technology could, in future, boost the participation of women in the fintech and start-up worlds.
Its proponents argue that blockchain could see the proliferation of small-scale peer-to-peer finance schemes, while research in developing nations shows that nearly 90% of such microfinance investments go to women.
Despite recent warnings by the likes of Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, over the risks of betting on cryptocurrencies, it is possible that blockchain could yet become a force for the greater financial empowerment of women.