Felix Salmon, acclaimed journalist and notorious Bitcoin skeptic, made waves in the digital currency community this week by turning a review of Nathaniel Popper's forthcoming book, "Digital Gold," into a lament about gender issues.
In his post, "Why Bitcoin's Male Domination Will Be Its Downfall," Salmon argued that the disproportionate number of men in the digital currency industry will hinder efforts to popularize bitcoin. "Unless and until women can be brought into the Bitcoin fold," he writes, "broader adoption is simply not going to happen."
Following Salmon's cue, Business Insider's Shane Ferro posted a curt commentary entitled the "One Reason Bitcoin is Going Nowhere." Repeating a (more than two-year-old) estimate that the Bitcoin community is made up of 96% men, Ferro surmised that "it [will be] hard to have a currency that leaves out 50% of the population.
The fallacy of these two pieces is the rush to conclusion. Using scant and shallow evidence of women's participation in the digital currency industry to foreshadow Bitcoin's demise is not only erroneous, but also impertinent. Though the total number of women in Bitcoin may in fact be small, the collective impact of their achievements is unmistakably great.
It's true that men far outnumber women in Bitcoin (as is the case in technology and financial services broadly). At the InsideBitcoins conference next week in New York City, only seven women will speak as panelists, compared to 92 men. But it's also the case that many of Bitcoin's women are the captains of industry. For example, women at leading digital currency companies Xapo, Ripple Labs, BlockCypher, SecondMarket, and BitPay (among others) all command roles in the C-suite.
Last month, the Digital Currency Council, ChangeTip, BitPay, the Bitcoin Foundation, and the Chamber of Digital Commerce launched the first Bitcoin Women's Day in concert with the 100-year old International Women's Day. The whole of the digital currency community took to social media on March 8 to recognize women in Bitcoin and celebrate their successes. Thirty-two leading women in bitcoin, including Connie Gallippi of the BitGive Foundation, Primavera De Filippi of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Elsa Broeker of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, also wrote essays about their experiences.
Highlights from their fellow essayists included:
"We believe cryptocurrencies are an amazing and empowering tool for people living in societies who are unbanked and can be used to make women and girls financially independent." Fereshteh Forough of Code to Inspire, a nonprofit that educates Afghan girls to write software (an organization Salmon might know of if he read a book that's been out since January, "The Age of Cryptocurrency" by Paul Vigna and Michael Casey).
"Bitcoin empowers. Imagine if you were told, 'sorry, but because you're a woman, you cannot open a bank account.' With Bitcoin, a woman can simply receive and spend funds, and connect with individuals around the world." Elizabeth Ploshay of BitPay.
"Bitcoin doesn't care about your socioeconomic status, ethnicity, culture, age or gender. It only cares that you are willing to learn and do good work." Jinyoung Lee Englund, formerly of the Bitcoin Foundation.
Ferro is right that the industry's success will demand equal participation from both sexes. Salmon's more nuanced argument about the pitfalls of focusing on technology alone without thinking through how it will actually fit into real people's lives, however, is a lesson for all entrepreneurs, men and women alike. There are no gender (dis)advantages to understanding customers or local market conditions.
Before leaping to conclusions based on percentages and raw figures, it's prudent to look more closely at the real people behind those numbers. Confusing quantity for quality leads the reader astray, and discounts the tremendous value added by bitcoin's women to this rapidly growing industry.
Sarah Martin is the vice president of the Digital Currency Council, a professional association, and spearheaded the inaugural Bitcoin Women's Day, a new annual event and now yearlong industry movement.