The Crypto World Needs More Women

The technology and engineering fields have historically been male dominated. Deloitte, for example, estimates that only about a quarter of leadership positions at the largest technology firms are held by women. Yet the crypto world—cryptocurrencies, digital tokens, smart contracts, NFTs, and decentralized finance (DeFi)—backed by blockchain technology is giving a whole new meaning to male dominance. A December 2021 study found that of the 121 leading crypto companies, only five (or 4.13 percent of the total) were founded by women. Even more worryingly, less than 10 percent of the partners at all crypto funds are women. So it should come as no surprise that the crypto space has a well-deserved reputation for having a “bro” culture – a culture that was on full display at the 2018 North American Bitcoin Conference where the 5 000 attendees were invited to a “networking party” at a famous Miami strip club. Due to the growing size of the crypto industry, its overwhelming male dominance has serious discriminatory implications for women’s career opportunities in technology. But before we discuss how this gender disparity can be reduced and the crypto world reaps the benefits, let’s step back and look at the size and growth of this increasingly important economic sector.

The Crypto World

The first thing to keep in mind is how new crypto is. The first bitcoin transaction took place only 14 years ago in 2009. From then until the last week of 2022, the capitalization of the crypto market grew to more than a trillion dollars. Fortune Magazine predicts that the global cryptocurrency market will grow to $1.9 trillion by 2028. Daily online transactions in bitcoin are around $6 billion, a payment method surpassed only by Visa and Mastercard with daily transaction volumes of $30.3 billion and $16.2 billion respectively. Although daily crypto trading volume in 2022 declined from its peaks in 2020 and 2021, it still hovered between $20 and $70 billion, an enormous market by any measure. And these transactions take place on more than 300 crypto platforms or exchanges.

However one looks at the crypto market, it is a dynamic and increasingly important sector of our economy, a sector in which women should play a much greater role. Increasing gender equality in the crypto world will not only open up new career opportunities for women, it will also bring positive changes to crypto’s culture and increase its innovation.

The Culture of Crypto

Gracy Chen, a veteran of several crypto firms who is now at Bitget, describes the crypto world as “the Wild West dominated by male speculators and a breeding culture reinforced by recent scandals and the market decline.” Chen notes that she has had “first-hand experience” of seeing how “female engagement and leadership”. [can] help [create] a more positive work environment and improved product improvement.” Indeed, researchers have found that when women’s participation in the top three leadership levels in a firm increases to at least 30 percent, both genders find that it results in a positive “changed management cultures…”. Such a critical mass of women in leadership leads to “a closer alignment with the ideals of contemporary leadership [that] must be seen as desirable.”

Innovation in Crypto

No one would suggest that crypto lacks innovation. But as Chen points out, more women in leadership leads to “improved product improvement.” Her observation is confirmed by numerous studies showing that mixed gender collaboration significantly improves business outcomes. For example, Gallup found that mixed-gender teams outperformed single-gender teams, largely because women and men “bring different viewpoints, ideas and market insights to projects.” Gallup found that companies, teams and individuals are more productive, creative and effective in problem solving and dealing with difficult situations when they have gender diverse leadership. Importantly, however, the benefits of mixed gender collaboration are not fully realized unless women are at least 30 percent of the team or decision-making group. Indeed, with such a critical mass of women in teams, men process information more thoroughly, become more reflective and are more open-minded. In addition, there is less “groupthink”, thus less insularity and closeness.

Get more women in crypto leadership

Increasing the proportion of women in crypto leadership will not be easy, but there is a way forward. In a forthcoming book Beyond Bias: The PATH to ending gender inequality at work, which I co-wrote with my husband, we are putting out a program that organizations can use to ensure that women’s promotion opportunities are equal to men’s. There are three essential steps that crypto firms must take.

Eliminate exclusionary behavior

First, firms must clearly and decisively prohibit exclusionary behavior, behavior that puts women down, limits their access to promotion and networking opportunities, subjects them to rude, crude, or uncivilized behavior, and results in them being talked over, interrupted, or ignored when they try to speak. Eliminating exclusionary behavior must be a top-down initiative. Once crypto leaders are committed to bringing women into leadership and making them feel welcome, exclusionary behavior can be quickly reduced if not eliminated entirely.

Adopt anti-discrimination personnel procedures

Second, Crypto firms must also adopt procedures for making personnel decisions that resist the influence of stereotypes and prejudices. Decisions involving hiring, compensation, assignment of responsibility and promotion are highly susceptible to these discriminatory influences. With the heavily male dominance of the crypto world, affinity bias is a matter of particular concern. Affinity bias is the natural preference we all have to favor people who are like us. This means that the male leaders in crypto are much more likely to assign high-profile projects to other men; socialize with other men to the exclusion of women; and give more and more useful advice, support and encouragement to other men. Given the power of affinity bias, it’s not surprising that the straight white men leading most major crypto firms have surrounded themselves (mostly) with other heterosexual white men. To counter the influence of affinity bias, firms must adopt specific, objective, and comprehensive; criteria on the basis of which personnel decisions must be made. Firms may also require more than one person to be involved in making each personnel decision, with the decision makers required to explain to each other the reasons for their preferred choice. Decision makers may also be required to write down their reasons for their personnel decisions, which will then be reviewed by another person.

Provide peer leadership advice and coaching

Third, once crypto firms start hiring more women, it is imperative that these women receive evaluations, advice, and coaching that are just as thorough, constructive, and supportive as those given to the men. This also applies to leadership development, training and support. Firms will have to work hard to hire more women, but once they hire them, firms need to be sure that these women’s workplace experiences are just as satisfying, encouraging and useful as their male counterparts.

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As exciting and dynamic as the crypto world is, its full potential will not be realized unless women begin to play a greater leadership role. But that’s not going to happen unless the crypto world becomes more welcoming to women, they’re not disadvantaged by affinity bias, and they’re given equal opportunities to advance. It can happen – it’s a simple matter of crypto firms recognizing their self-interest in doing so.

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