Women in Blockchain: Where We Are, and The Way Forward
While the overall technology sector has repeatedly come under fire for its lack of gender diversity, the blockchain industry is trying to break out of that mold. It may be too early to claim that equitable gender distribution has come to blockchain. However, it is worthwhile to take stock of how far we have come. A 2018 survey of 100 blockchain startups showed that only 14.5% of jobs were held by women.
ConsenSys maintains a top-level OKR of being an industry leader when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, partnering with organizations like Work180, CryptoChicks and the Black Women Blockchain Council. Since September 2020 ConsenSys has increased gender balance in the workforce from 19% to 25% as of December 2021. Its belonging scores also continue to trend up, reaching 91% in the latest survey. A late 2019 survey of investors conducted by Grayscale showed that 43% of the investors interested in bitcoin were women.
To celebrate this journey that women have made in the world of blockchain, we gathered four women who are now veterans of the industry. Our panelists included Lisa Wade, chief executive at Digital X, the world’s first publicly-listed blockchain company; Kanchan Kaur, director of engineering at ConsenSys, Gillian Au Howard, founder of Digital Art Fair, and Cathy Casas, head of the blockchain center of excellence and digital assets markets unit at Union Bank of the Philippines.
We talked about being a woman in crypto, what skills make you successful, and how to get your foot in the door. The conversation also touched upon topics such as the use cases of blockchain, the likelihood of wider acceptance for cryptocurrencies as payments, and the future of the blockchain technology. You can watch the complete webinar here. For the panelists’ thoughts on all things women in blockchain, you can read on.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Simran Jagdev: Tell us about how you started your career in blockchain?
Lisa Wade: I’ve been in finance for nearly 30 years and I really consider that i still work in finance because to me blockchain, decentralized finance, Web3.0 is an evolution of financial markets…I came to the realization, probably slowly over the last 10 years but really very rapidly over the last five years, that the evolution of financial markets was going to come from this new technology.
Kanchan Kaur: I started my career as a software developer close to 20 years ago, and over the years, I have worked on a range of technologies and products. I did spend a considerable amount of my career, more than 10 years, at RSA (a networking security company that focuses on encryption). So I’ve got a strong base in cryptography and moving into blockchain space was an easy transition. What got me to this technology was the idea of creating a more inclusive world and decentralization.
Gillian Au Howard: My journey [into blockchain] is very different. I don’t have a tech background, I’m not from finance. I’m from the fine arts side. But my husband is very much into blockchain, so I’ve always been eavesdropping, listening to him. Naturally, when I did my Global Art Business course at Sotheby’s in London in 2018, they were talking a lot about how the blockchain can help with different industries, particularly in the fine arts industry. And I started asking questions. I didn’t understand it at first, I must be honest. Once I learnt more and more about blockchain, the idea of the digital art fair became more solid and eventually I [thought] I have learned enough, and this is going to work. And that’s how I got into blockchain and in the NFT space.
Cathy Casas: I entered and discovered blockchain through a fortunate accident. I made a bold decision to leave my first love, a career that I’d built in treasury and finance, for my real love, my husband. He was my office mate at that time and I decided to move to another unit because we couldn’t be in the same office. It just so happened that during that time the bank was also undergoing its digital transformation journey. [Simultaneously,] I read a book called The Shift, which talked about the future of work. It made me realize that soon my work in the treasury will eventually be replaced by an algorithm. So, I went out of my comfort zone and made a big shift into emerging tech, but mostly handling the business and product aspect of it. So, I never thought that I was in blockchain and would even end up leading this space for the bank.
SJ: What is it like to be a woman in the crypto world? What are the challenges and upsides to it?
KK: For me, the big learning was to start to feel at ease when you’re the only woman in the room. That’s happened quite a lot in my career, and learning to be authentic and true to myself was a game changer for me. Building my confidence and believing that my perspective adds value has been working well for me. I always lean on my mentors and support circle whenever I start doubting myself and my capabilities. They are the go to people for me.
GH: From where I came from, the creative industry, we were a little bit luckier because we traditionally have quite a fair number of female leaders. But when I started off [in blockchain], my tech team were mostly men, and very often, like Kanchan said, I was the only woman in there. It doesn’t scare me, being the only woman [in the room].
CC: I haven’t really seriously thought about how my work is affected by me being a woman. But I have a lot of fears, challenges, maybe insecurities, about being here in the tech world primarily because I didn’t have a computing or tech background. So, I tried to handle it by learning as much as I can, even going as far as learning Solidity just so I can communicate with the blockchain developers for the product. I haven’t experienced [the challenges of being a woman in the crypto world] myself. But as I’ve been hearing a lot of stories I realized this may not be the case for everyone. So, I have a newly discovered advocacy to contribute as much as I can to women in my team, in my workplace, and also the industry.
SJ: How have NFTs empowered women and driven female engagement in crypto?
GH: In my experience in the traditional fine art world, the number of female artists being exhibited or collected by museum galleries was five percent, versus 95 percent men. When we come to the digital art world, only in NFTs, the numbers increase to 16. So, from five to 16. Yes, it’s still a long way to go to 50-50 growth, but [representation of women in digital art] has increased for a few reasons. [One of them is] the ease of accessibility– it’s easier for female artists who otherwise might not be able to go to speak to someone in the fine art world or look for an art dealer because of geographical reasons.
SJ: What are the top five skills that women developers looking to get into blockchain need?
KK: Strong programming skills. There are a huge range of projects that are happening at the moment on blockchain. So, choose your programming skills, start looking at areas you want to get into. You could be developing the blockchain technology itself for building projects based on that. Doing a little bit of research, and having your fundamentals as a traditional programmer is good enough to get into blockchain.
SJ: The overall tech industry has always had issues with women and gender. Do you think those problems have transitioned into the blockchain space?
LW: That’s a tricky one. I want to answer this question differently. One of the things that I learned in the last 12 months was from a very successful senior banking executive. As we were about to walk into a meeting, she said [she could] only stay for 20 minutes. I said oh well, that’s good because nobody will say anything with you in the room. She replied, “Well, Lisa we’re all equal.” And I said, we’re not because you’re the boss and second in charge of the whole bank. So, we’re not equal.
In blockchain, we are building equality in the technology. In blockchain, crypto, web 3.0, we’re building a new economy, a new ecosystem. We’re thinking about equality as we’re building it, and I think that’s the big change.
Broadly speaking, [looking at] the big picture, the answer is yes. I’ve worked on so many projects now, and every single project it’s always guys in the room. So, I do think we need to think about diversity more. But I think it’s happening, and as intelligent women we just need to get in there.
SJ: What is the advice that you would give to a woman looking to get into the industry?
CC: You should follow your passion. Always have an open mind and interest to learn new things, and then just believe in yourself because we can do anything that you want to do. Especially now that much of what used to be paid information is now free. So, for blockchain, there are good courses available online. You have thought leaders who are very much willing to share stories and knowledge.
GH: If you are an artist looking to get into the NFT space, now is the best time ever. When I was a child, it was so difficult [to be an artist] because there was no OpenSea. If you wanted to be an artist, you had to carry your physical painting and go to a gallery and pitch them. But now with all this technology, it’s much easier. You need to learn how to mint your work, learn about gas fees, and the best time to mint. [Art] used to be a painting, but now it can be animation, a gif, generative art, AR/VR. [There are] so many possibilities. Choose the one that you like and stick with it ,or not and develop different kinds of skills. In my opinion, in the last 12 years of me managing our galleries, female artists especially should do it. There were so many barriers back then, but now it’s much lower.
LW: I think Gillian touched on something really important and that’s passion. There are so many different roles, so many different places for everybody. Find the thing that you love, and if you want to be in this industry, then go for it. Whatever you’re doing, you can shape-shift into this industry.
One of my favorite quotes is by Joseph Campbell and it’s “As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It’s not as wide as you think.” So, If you want to get into this space, take a leap. There’s lots of people that will catch you and you’ll land on your feet. Just have a go because I don’t think there’s any company in the world that doesn’t respect people who want to make a change. We want all the people with passion and we’ll find roles for them, and that will make the industry better. Because we don’t even know what we don’t know, we don’t know what the next innovation is. And you may have it, and you may think because you can’t code that you don’t have a place. But I can assure you, if you have the passion and you’re willing to take the leap, it will work out.
KK: I totally agree with [the other panelists]. Go for it, give it a try. And if that’s not enough, think about the future. We are building this amazing technology, we need representation, we need young girls, we need women to be part of it. That should be a very big motivation for anyone. At least if you’re a coder, go for it. We need you there. All you need is time, determination, passion, and you will be right there.