As Bitcoin hovers around $10,000, female investors and users could be key to its adoption as mainstream financial technology
The future (of cryptocurrency) is female.
After Bitcoin surpassed $10,000 in value last week, much of the discourse revolved around whether there was a bubble around the most famous form of cryptocurrency. And little wonder: someone who held one bitcoin on December 31, 2016 would have seen their asset’s value climb nearly 11 times as of late Friday.
The majority of the (admittedly volatile) gains realized by bitcoin and crypto cousins like Ethereum this year however, have gone straight into the pockets of men. Estimates of the number of women investors and users of cryptocurrency vary, but most peg female participation at between 1% to 5%. “It’s tied to the larger issue of there being few women in tech and finance generally. Given that cryptocurrency sits at the intersection, this is exacerbated,” Angela Walch, a law professor and Research Fellow at the Centre for Blockchain Technologies at University College London, tells Moneyish.
Cryptocurrency is a digital alternative medium of exchange created, secured and transmitted via blockchain technology, which links and records transactions via cryptography. It is created, or “mined,” by computers. Bitcoin, its most famous iteration, has decidedly masculine roots. It was created by anonymously using a male Japanese moniker and its earliest cheerleaders were male P.C. gamers and libertarian members of the cyberpunk communities who liked that it isn’t controlled by a governmental central bank.
The small numbers of female crypto enthusiasts have described uncomfortable experiences being ignored or having their appearance commented on when they attend industry events. Some of the early scandals around Bitcoin, such as its use to anonymously purchase illegal drugs on Silk Road and the 2014 collapse of Mt. Gox, an exchange which lost $450 million worth of Bitcoin, haven’t encouraged women to participate either.
“The bitcoin industry has been punished for the lack of women,” says Perianne Boring, founder of the Chamber of Digital Commerce, a D.C.-based trade association for the blockchain industry. “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.”
Female interest in cryptocurrency however, is gradually growing. There are Women in Bitcoin groups popping up all over the world, with more established branches in San Francisco and New York boasting 381 and 986 members respectively. Some female cryptocurrency investors also see blockchain technology as a solution to common financial problems that women face, such as raising money to start a tech business.
Despite a number of prominent female-focused venture capitalists having set up shop in the past year, female founders still face daunting odds when it comes to raising money. Per a 2014 Babson College report, only 6% of partners at VC firms are women and just 15.8% of startups globally have even one female founder. Women also receive just a fraction of the venture capital male founders get. In turn, this has created an imbalance in power which has led to abusive behavior on the part of some prominent male venture capitalists.
Cryptocurrency ventures however, have found a way to circumvent that old boy’s club. Their primary method of raising money is via an Initial Coin Offering, in which they issue a document describing their project and the funds they hope to raise. Crucially, the public, and not just a tiny group of investors, buys in hope that the cryptocurrency will subsequently rise in value. Over $3.6 billion has been raised in ICOs this year, per Coinschedule. And one of the biggest raises this year— the $232 million ICO of Tezos, subsequently mired in legal battles— was in part led by a woman.
“We’ve seen terrible stories from Silicon Valley,” says Boring, who calls ICOs a powerful way to circumvent them. “They’re not for every company but they can allow for the democratization of ideas. There’s all sorts of companies with innovative ideas founded by people who didn’t go to the right schools and don’t have access to the VC community.”
Others also see cryptocurrency as a way of enhancing microfinance, especially in the developing world. AirFox, an American company, is planning to launch peer-to-peer microloans— these are small business loans— based off blockchain technology next year. Such loans are overwhelmingly granted to women: 97% of the microcredit customers at the Grameen Bank, a microcredit pioneer, are issued to women. AirFox’s idea is that it can get some idea of a borrower’s risk profile by analyzing whether they reliably pay for their cellphone bills, for example, and then issue the appropriate credit via a cryptocurrency token.
“If you qualify, this can be sent to your phone instantly. You don’t have to go to the bank physically or wait to be approved,” says Christine To, AirFox’s vice president of business operations. “With blockchain, the technology is executed in a safe and transparent manner. All the data is publicly available. This can substantially improve the lives and businesses of people in developing economies.”
Others however, caution against this blue sky thinking. “Seeing technology as a magical solution is an oversimplification,” says Walch, the law professor who has developed a reputation as a critic of the quasi-utopianism of some cryptocurrency enthusiasts. “Who makes a blockchain entry and did they make the right checks? Validity, truth and accuracy all depend on processes outside the system.”
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