03/16/2018

Why Aren’t There More Women In Blockchain?

17:29 minutes

Veronica Reynolds, founding member of the UCLA Blockchain Lab and co-founder of the Los Angeles Women in Blockchain Meetup. Photo courtesy of Veronica Reynolds

At the SXSW conference in Austin this week, one word was on everyone’s lips: blockchain. It’s the technology that makes possible every transaction made with Bitcoin—or any digital currency, for that matter. And when Bitcoin skyrocketed on the stock market last year, it turned average Joes into millionaires. Why just Joes? Most surveys show that 95 percent of blockchain enthusiasts and crypto investors are male.

[We’re still waiting to see where China’s Tiangong-1 station will fall to Earth…]

That’s a problem because blockchain platforms can do a lot more than support digital currencies. The current fervor surrounding the technology is fueled by blockchain’s potential to change everything we do, from air travel to doctors visits to voting. Nellie Bowles, New York Times technology reporter, Kerry Flynn, Business and Tech reporter for Mashable, and Veronica Reynolds, co-founder of the UCLA Blockchain Lab, join guest host Flora Lichtman this week to discuss the future of women in the blockchain movement.


Interview Highlights

On what blockchain is.
Nellie Bowles: Blockchain is a publicly-verifiable digital ledger, is a kind of a quick jargony way to explain it—it’s a platform. It will be used for many different things. How the blockchain is used in our lives and what it means is really yet to be seen. And that’s what’s so exciting about right now and about covering it right now.

On how people are using blockchain beyond cryptocurrency.
Kerry Flynn: The cryptocurrency part is definitely a really loud and really understandable use case of it, but I spoke with a lot of people [at South by Southwest] who see it being far greater—just like the internet is not just for reading about news stories. I think one that’s been most fascinating is the benefit for food supply. So, for instance, a restaurant being able to really understand whether or not the food that they get from a farm is actually directly from the farm, being able to track where your food is being sourced, and where it’s coming from. And then, because it’s publicly available, it’s not just the supplier and the distributor, but also people like you and me being able to verify that it’s true.

[The high energy cost of bitcoin’s rise.]

On “blockchain bros.”
Nellie Bowles: I’m based in San Francisco and I’ve been covering the “blockchain boom” that we’ve seen over the last year, and the sort of culture of it. One aspect of the culture of it is that there are major gender problems. It is a predominantly male space and a lot of women were involved early on and have felt like they’re being pushed out. Now as the sort of price of cryptocurrencies has gone up, there’s been a frenzy and the quote-unquote “blockchain bros” have come into this space. The “blockchain bro” [is] someone who maybe doesn’t have extreme technical knowledge but maybe bought Bitcoin or Ethereum early on, was on Reddit, was on 4Chan, was sort of actively involved in this community, but it is sort of like in it for cash.

On fighting the gender gap in blockchain.
Veronica Reynolds: I started going to a lot of events in the middle of last year and at the first big conference I went to, I came in after lunch. I looked around and I felt uncomfortable and asked myself, “Gosh why are you feeling uncomfortable right now?” And then it dawned on me it’s because I don’t see myself mirrored. I looked around and it was a sea of men. And so what I started doing at that conference and at basically every event I’ve been to since is just walking up to the other women kind of commenting on the gender disparity and saying “Can we connect? Can we do something?” …I have joined a bunch of Slack, Telegram, Facebook, and WhatsApp channels that are just groups of women who are connected around blockchain. It spans women from finance, engineers, policy, etc., all just kind of gathering. You’ve seen… this year especially, in the early part of 2018, just a lot of events emerging that are focused… around women in blockchain and kind of highlighting the fact that we’re women, the fact that we’re doing things in this space.

On the barriers for women entering the blockchain field.
Veronica Reynolds: I think a lot of them are systemic…I won’t name who wrote this, but for example there was a guy who wrote a blog post and he was talking about how his firsthand experience is that women just don’t want to do the work to be a part of it. So if your viewpoint going into it is not that women are dumb, but they don’t want to or they’re not interested, then that’s how you treat them. So when you see a woman you just assume, “Oh, are you in marketing?” and really she’s an engineer. So I think that’s kind of what we face.

[Meet the female astronomers who captured the stars.]

On the stakes of women being “left out” of the blockchain boom.
Nellie Bowles: The stakes are huge…The early winners in these spaces set the tone and start a cascade of effects that last for the entire generation of the space. They become the investors. They become the social community leaders. It matters a lot. I think a lot of people are feeling like they don’t want history to repeat itself. They don’t want the same thing that we saw with the last startup boom to happen again.

Veronica Reynolds: I think there’s a big idea because we’re not seeing many women in the space right now. We just spoke about how there are women groups, and that’s awesome. But if women aren’t put in the spotlight, that’s where you have an issue of future people—people who are not in the community already but are maybe thinking about it—feeling, like we talked about, not welcomed. That’s exactly what we experience in tech. And then when finally women start to join then they feel like they need to leave, and they don’t stay on. And I would be scared of a future there.

On the implications of women being involved in a blockchain future.
Kerry Flynn: This morning I was on the phone with Jenny Q. Ta, who is a Wall Street veteran and she’s now in this space, and she envisions [blockchain] as democratizing the internet and currency and it’s supposed to empower people. And that’s exactly why she is like, “Women, get involved. This is our chance.” So we need more people like that saying that and actually doing something about it.

[How sexual harassment undermines women in science.]

On how women can find a mentor to get into the blockchain field.
Kerry Flynn: What’s been inspiring to me [is] I’ve spoken to women in the blockchain industry. The V.P. of blockchain—which is a real title, the V.P. of blockchain—at IBM is a woman and that’s awesome. And she says that almost her entire team is female driven. Also, IBM has a female CEO. So yeah, there are some pretty powerful women in this space. I mean, I spoke with her at South By Southwest, I’m sure she would love to speak with you and with other women in the industry… You know, blockchain isn’t just about startups and new businesses, as great as that is. Blockchain is an investment that giant corporations like IBM are betting on. So go reach out to them.

Veronica Reynolds: Basically in every major city there’s “Women in Blockchain” meetups. Something that I had done was I kind of reached out. I read a blog post by Preethi Kasireddy and it just really resonated with me, and she was moving to L.A., so I just kind of reached out and said hello. We ended up connecting. So I think if there’s someone in particular that kind of resonates with you in this space, I’ve always found reaching out and just even saying hello can can be beneficial.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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Segment Guests

Nellie Bowles

Nellie Bowles is a tech reporter at the New York Times, based in San Francisco, California.

Kerry Flynn

Kerry Flynn is a business tech reporter for Mashable, based in New York, New York.

Veronica Reynolds

Veronica Reynolds is co-founder of the UCLA Blockchain Lab, in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman. At South by Southwest, a tech conference in Austin this week, one word was on everybody’s lips– Blockchain. It’s the technology that makes every transaction made with Bitcoin or any digital currency possible, and when Bitcoin’s value surged last year, it turned average Joes into millionaires.

And yes, specifically Joes because most surveys show that roughly 95% of Blockchain enthusiasts, and crypto investors are men. Joining me now to talk about that, and why it matters are my guests. Nellie Bowles is a reporter covering tech, and internet culture for the New York Times. Welcome to Science Friday.

NELLIE BOWLES: Thank you so much for having me.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Carrie Flynn reports on the business of technology for Mashable. Welcome to Sci Fri.

CARRIE FLYNN: Hi. Thank you.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Veronica Reynolds, co-founder of the UCLA Blockchain Lab. Welcome to Science Friday.

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Thanks for having me.

FLORA LICHTMAN: And are you a woman working in Blockchain? Please give us a call. We want to hear from you. Our number is 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet us @SciFri. OK, Nellie, I know this is risky because we’re on live radio right now.

NELLIE BOWLES: Oh, I’m nervous already.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Don’t be. Blockchain is notoriously difficult to explain, and understand, I think. I don’t think– so do you have a simple–

NELLIE BOWLES: People always have a new metaphor for how to explain Blockchain. They’ll be like OK, it’s like an ATM, and then there’s a camel, and Blockchain is a publicly verifiable digital ledger. Is kind of a quick jargony way to explain it. It’s a platform. It will be used for many different things. How the Blockchain is used in our lives, and what it means is really yet to be seen, and that’s what’s so exciting about right now, and about covering it right now.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Veronica, you work in Blockchain. Does that sound right to you? Is there anything you’d add?

VERONICA REYNOLDS: No, I think that’s a pretty good description. I always describe it as a de-centralized ledger where people from around the world can contribute their transactions in a public transparent way.

FLORA LICHTMAN: So ledger exists in multiple places. So that provides some added security. Do I have that right?

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Yeah, you can say it exists in multiple places. It technically does. So computers serve as nodes, and so the ledger is actually sitting on these computers around the world. But in another sense, it’s existing kind of everywhere, and nowhere at the same time.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Great. Carrie, you were at South by Southwest this week. So Blockchain isn’t just about cryptocurrencies, right? What are the other ways that people are using it?

CARRIE FLYNN: Yeah, the cryptocurrency part is definitely a really loud, and really understandable use case of it, but I spoke with a lot of people there who see it being far greater. Just like the internet isn’t just for reading about news stories. I think one that’s been most fascinating is the benefit for food supply.

So for instance, a restaurant being able to really understand whether or not the food that they get from a farm is actually directly from the farm. Being able to track where your food is being sourced, and where it’s coming from, and then because it’s publicly available, it’s not just the supplier and the distributor, but also people like you and me being able to verify that it’s true.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Cool. So Nellie, you wrote an article about Blockchain Bros. Did you coin the term?

NELLIE BOWLES: The people I interviewed coined the term, but I did, yes.

FLORA LICHTMAN: So walk me through the type specimen of a Blockchain bro.

NELLIE BOWLES: The type of specimen. I’m based in San Francisco, and I’ve been covering the Blockchain boom that we’ve seen over the last year, and the sort of culture of it. And one aspect of the culture of it is that there are major gender problems.

It is a predominantly male space, and a lot of women were involved early on, and have felt like they are being pushed out now as the price of cryptocurrencies has gone up, and there’s been a frenzy, and the quote unquote “Blockchain” bros have come into this space. The “Blockchain” bro being someone who maybe doesn’t have extreme technical knowledge, but maybe bought Bitcoin, or Ether early on, was on Reddit, was on 4Chan, was actively involved in this community, but is in it for cash.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yeah, where was the bro born? Are these–

NELLIE BOWLES: Where are all the bros born?

FLORA LICHTMAN: The block chamber. Let me be specific. Where was the Blockchain bro born? Are these finance people?

NELLIE BOWLES: It’s a mix. I mean, it’s a community. It’s an industry that’s exploding. There’s not one type of person. You will find really serious, really philosophical nerds who just want to see a revolution take over, and you will find people who are in it for get rich quick schemes who want to run scams, and you’ll find all kinds of people in the space.

The gender situation is very problematic, though, and that is something that you hear time, and again, and problematic in serious ways. Conferences with 85 to one speaker skews. Just astonishing numbers, and you go to these meet ups, and often you don’t run into a lot of women.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Veronica, is that your experience?

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Yeah, it’s interesting. So I actually worked in music and tech prior to this. So it’s a little bit used to the gender disparity in both of those industries, and I started going to a lot of events in the middle of last year, and at the first big conference I went to, I came in after lunch, and I looked around, and I felt uncomfortable.

And I asked myself, gosh, why are you feeling uncomfortable right now? And then it dawned on me, it’s because I don’t see myself mirrored. I looked around, and it was a sea of men. And so what I started doing at that conference, and basically every event I’ve been to since is just walking up to the other women, commenting on the gender disparity, and saying, can we connect? Can we do something?

And so what’s happened as a result of that I’ve joined a bunch of Slack, Telegram, Facebook, and WhatsApp channels that are just groups of women who are connected around Blockchain, and it spans women from finance, engineers, policy, et cetera, all just kind of gathering. And you’ve seen this real, I think, this year especially, in the early part of 2018, just a lot of events emerging that are focused, and most of them are women driven, around women in Blockchain, and highlighting not the fact that we’re women, the fact that we’re doing things in the space.

FLORA LICHTMAN: What are the stakes of women being left out of this.

NELLIE BOWLES: The stakes are huge. I have covered the last startup boom, and now this, which is really looking to be a like another industry wide boom in the same way that the internet was on, and the mobile web was– the early winners in these spaces set the tone, and start a cascade of effects that last for the entire generation of the space.

They become the investors, they become the social community leaders, it matters a lot. So I think a lot of people are feeling like they don’t want history to repeat itself. They don’t want the same thing that we saw with the startup boom to happen again.

CARRIE FLYNN: I think there’s a big idea because we’re not seeing many women in the space right now. Sure, like we just spoke about, there are women groups, and that’s awesome, but if women are put in the spotlight, that’s where you have an issue of future people.

People who are not in the community already, but are maybe thinking about it feeling like we talked about, not welcomed, and that’s exactly what we experienced in the tech. And then when, finally, women start to join, then they feel like they need to leave, and they don’t stay on, and I would be scared of a future there.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Tell me about Puertopia.

NELLIE BOWLES: Puertopia. So that’s a little bit– it’s related to the gender stuff, but it’s kind of a separate story. Puertopia is a utopian effort that’s happening in Puerto Rico right now, led by a group of young men who made a lot of money on Blockchain. Actually, some young, some sort of middle aged who had some successes, and some failures in Silicon Valley. They all made a lot of money on Bitcoin, in theory, and now they’re trying to build a city in Puerto Rico.

FLORA LICHTMAN: A physical city.

NELLIE BOWLES: A physical city. In part, just to get around the taxes– the taxes in the US because Puerto Rico has an advantageous system, and so to me, what’s so interesting about that is that there is a big social vision here with cryptocurrency, and that’s what makes it so fun to cover, and that’s what makes it not just like covering banking or something. There really are these true believers. And again, then, if you think about a utopian vision, that’s why remembering gender equality, and remembering also racial diversity in this space is so important.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yeah, it seems like the utopian vision is completely at odds with the makeup of the community.

NELLIE BOWLES: Yeah.

CARRIE FLYNN: I would just say that the women I’ve spoken to in this space, whether it was at South by, or this morning I was on the phone with Jenny Q. Ta, who is a Wall Street veteran, and she’s now in this space, and she, like you said, she’s envisioned this as democratizing the internet, and currency, and it’s supposed to empower people, and that’s exactly why she is like women, get involved. This is our chance. So we need more people like that saying that, and actually doing something about it.

NELLIE BOWLES: That it could disrupt the financial systems we have in place. If you hear the ideal end society, it’s an amazingly egalitarian space where banks have lost all power, and all of us are running the economy.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Veronica, what are the barriers to women entering this field?

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Well, I think a lot of them are systemic. So kind of listening to the conversation, women need to get involved, they do. But I also think– and I think the technology, to everyone’s point, has the capability of democratizing the world, or making it equal for all, but not alone. The technology itself is morally agnostic, and I think we need to keep having these conversations. I think the Me Too movement was, I think, very powerful.

I think, for me, the big takeaway from that is women should be heard. Women should be listened to, and I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of women speak out, and especially a lot of women are speaking out in the Blockchain industry. And there’s women I’m working with here in LA, and we’re putting together meet ups.

There’s one happening in a couple of weeks with Melrose PR, and there’s one on April 11 that we’re having a Coral Tree Cafe, and then we’re planning a series to help new women who are looking to enter the space come in, and I think that that’s one way of many to attack the systemic barriers, at least in the United States, that women have historically faced.

I won’t name who wrote this, but for example, there was a guy who wrote a blog post, and he was talking about his firsthand experience is that women just don’t want to do the work to be a part of it. So that’s your viewpoint going into it is not that women are dumb, but they don’t want to, or they’re not interested, and then that’s how you treat them. So when you see a woman, you just assume, oh, are you in marketing? And really, she is an engineer. So I think that’s kind of what we face.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Let’s go to the phones. Christina in Fort Collins, welcome to Science Friday.

CHRISTINA: Hi. I was just on hold, and I lost you, or something happened.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Are you back now? You’re on the air.

CHRISTINA: I am.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Tell us your question.

CHRISTINA: Oh, I am!

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yes.

CHRISTINA: OK, I have been interested in the Blockchain technology for, I don’t know, running on about– when it first emerged, and I had had a lot of visionary experience around then on how I wanted to structure a business, and almost like a common type thing where everybody’s represented, and everybody’s a worker owned entity, Holacracy governed using Blockchain, even potentially creating currency.

And I thought I was– I thought I had a lot of people on board, but the problem was a lot of people didn’t really understand what I was talking about, and I ran into people who– you’re either a cooperator, or you’re a competitor, and you can’t be both. And so it’s been really difficult to find the true cooperators in my community, and then to have the kind of understanding.

So now that it’s coming out into the mainstream, I’m super excited because I still want to create the same kind of entity, and yet I don’t necessarily have the tools, or the time because I’m also working out of my permaculture site, and creating all kinds of other things. So I’m wondering about mentoring, and that’s my big question, I guess. I need a mentor

FLORA LICHTMAN: OK. Thanks, Christina. I’m Flora Lichtman, and this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Carrie, I noticed you jumping in. No?

CARRIE FLYNN: I could jump in, yeah. I guess what’s been inspiring to me, like I said, I’ve spoken to women in the Blockchain industry, and the VP of Blockchain, which is a real title, VP of Blockchain at IBM is a woman, and that’s awesome. And she says that almost her entire team is female driven, and also IBM has a female CEO.

So yeah, there are some pretty powerful women in this space, and I spoke with her at South by Southwest, and I’m sure she would love to speak with you, and with other women in the industry. And it’s fascinating that this Blockchain isn’t just about start ups, and new businesses, as great as that is. Blockchain is an investment that giant corporations like IBM are betting on. So go reach out to them.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Veronica, any tips for mentoring, or how to get in?

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Yeah, I would say look for meet ups in your area. I didn’t catch the town that she was from, but basically, in every major city, there’s women in Blockchain meet ups, and I think something that I had done was I reached out. I read a blog post by Preethy Kasireddy, and it just really resonated with me, and she was moving to LA. So I just kind of reached out, and said hello, and we ended up connecting. So I think if there’s someone in particular that resonates with you in the space, I’ve always found reaching out, and just even saying hello can be beneficial.

FLORA LICHTMAN: I think there’s something intimidating about Blockchain because it’s hard to understand, and wrap your mind around, and because it’s so new, and so we’re still waiting for some of these applications. I’m not saying that it should be, but how much do I actually have to know to get involved in this space?

NELLIE BOWLES: I think it has been it somewhat intentionally confusing.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Really?

NELLIE BOWLES: I actually don’t think it’s as complicated as we’re sort of led to believe.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Really, tell me more.

NELLIE BOWLES: I think there are people who benefit from obfuscating how it works. I talked to this fantastic entrepreneur, Ariana Simpson. How she phrased it was– and she’s in the Blockchain space– was sort of women are always waiting until they’re experts, or they’re waiting until they have a PhD in something. And she’s like but look at these clowns around us. Look at these people just jumping in, and getting rich quick on the space. You don’t need an enormous amount of expertise because no one has an enormous amount of expertise. This stuff is brand new.

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Yeah, I agree. I think the underlying technology is a little complex. I don’t think people shouldn’t be afraid of that. Sometimes I do– and I don’t know, maybe it’s just my circle. Sometimes women seem to have a little bit more hesitation, and I think to Nellie’s point, I think we– and maybe it’s a cultural thing, I’m not sure. But I think more often than not, we really want to master the space before we go off, and talk about it, and I think there’s a wisdom to that.

There’s an inherent– of being risk averse. But I also think there’s this emphasis where you have to understand all of the tech, and I think like any industry, there’s other aspects– for example, tokenomics– that we really need knowledgeable people about. And while I do think understanding what hashing is, for example, is really important because then you understand the applications a lot better.

FLORA LICHTMAN: What’s hashing?

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Nellie, do you want to explain that?

NELLIE BOWLES: Get out of here.

VERONICA REYNOLDS: I feel like I’m going to butcher it. I have a basic understanding of–

FLORA LICHTMAN: And just as a note, we have a minute left.

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Maybe I won’t go into that, but what I will say is going on to YouTube, and looking up key terms like what is a Diffie-Hellman key exchange? What is hashing? What is elliptical curve cryptography? What is a smart contract? I think if you go, and Google those things, for anyone, not just women, you’re going to have a much better understanding, and you’ll see that it’s not–

FLORA LICHTMAN: Thank you. So I’m sorry to say that is all we have time for, and I wish we could talk more because this is so fascinating. I want to thank my guests, Nellie Bowles, reporter covering tech and internet culture for the New York Times. Carrie Flynn reports on business of technology for Mashable. Veronica Reynolds, co-founder of the UCLA Blockchain Lab. Thank you all.

CARRIE FLYNN: Thank you.

VERONICA REYNOLDS: Thank you.

NELLIE BOWLES: Thank you.

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