Balancing blockchain's equality equation

Katherine Ng
Katherine Ng5/30/2022 05:30 PM GMT+08  • 7 min read
Balancing blockchain's equality equation
Across the region, blockchain and cryptocurrency firms are still overwhelmingly male-dominated. Here's how we can change that. Photo: Shubham Dhage/Unsplash / GuerillaBuzz
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In all my time spent in the tech industry, there has perhaps not been a single new technology that has represented a greater opportunity for humanity and on as wide a scale than blockchain.

But despite its decade-long promise of equity and financial empowerment, the nascent industry that now surrounds it seems to have followed the footsteps of the traditional finance and tech industries, mimicking its gender equality problem.

Only one in five crypto investors in Singapore today are women, according to a survey conducted last year by personal finance community platform Seedly, crypto exchange Gemini, and crypto price-tracking site CoinMarketCap.

Across the region, blockchain and cryptocurrency firms are still overwhelmingly male-dominated, with female representation in Southeast Asian tech firms shrinking the higher up the ladder one climbs. This is in spite of research by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) suggesting that more equitable female representation in leadership rungs is correlated with higher profitability. So what gives?

Inherent and unconscious bias

For one, the gender skew in blockchain is partly attributable to the confluence of systemic and cultural factors. Consider this: Over half of female secondary and tertiary students in Singapore admit to having an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in their earlier years.

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However, only two in five are considering a career in the field today, reveals a study by market research firm Ipsos. From the ages of 14 to 16, over 60% of female students change their minds while going through the public school system. In a “smart” nation, this trend seems completely out of place.

While I can relate to developing a strong interest in tech from an early age, growing up in my corner of Southeast Asia certainly presented obstacles that would have deterred most young women from pursuing a career in the field.

This was because one’s career options were often determined by, amongst other things, gender. Culturally and historically, STEM and other technical programmes were often seen as male-friendly, and stereotypes around what a STEM professional should be or look like abound, reinforcing the idea in the minds of young girls that success in the field was out of reach.

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It should come as no surprise that research reveals that female students tend to pass on a STEM career mostly due to lack of interest and perceived difficulty, with nearly six in 10 unaware of the opportunities in STEM fields.

Operating with such assumptions can lead to inherent biases that bleed into the STEM industries and institutions, only further limiting women as they weigh their career prospects. Throughout my career, my technical expertise has often been met with scepticism from male counterparts who would rather see me as a “marketing type” with no real knowledge of the developmental side of things. This is in spite of the fact that most women I know in the space are either programmers themselves or have coding experience; I have personally also completed coding and programming courses.

These archaic barriers still exist across the region today, providing an explanation for the lack of representation not just in tech and blockchain but also in the boardrooms of most industries in Southeast Asia. According to Deloitte, less than one in five board members in Singapore were female in 2021, while Malaysia fared slightly better at 27%.

Stepping up

To combat this, three main actors will have to step up to the plate.

For one, taking a top-down approach by looking to forward-thinking governments to make the first move is key. With so many countries across the region looking to solidify their status as innovative tech hubs, encouraging more participation among women will be critical to a long-term strategy — whether in the form of grants for female-led tech and blockchain projects, or projects that ad- dress the gender imbalance in the sector.

From a policy-based level, Singapore is already making critical first steps, with the government having recently announced a White Paper on Women’s Development, which outlines 25 key areas to be implemented in the next 10 years. Whether in terms of childcare schemes or mandates ensuring more equitable board representation, having an actual plan in place that holistically addresses the many barriers limiting women today on a structural and systemic level is a promising step forward.

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Secondly, organisations need to start being honest with themselves — just how inclusive are their policies, and what biases are they operating on? Considering that nearly a third of tech programmes at universities across Southeast Asia still lack any gender diversity initiatives, is it so hard to imagine this disparity? After all, how can we expect women to reach out when we don’t try to meet them halfway?

And if it’s a matter of funding, women, too, are now making waves in this arena. Look at Katie Haun, an ex-Andreessen Horowitz general partner, who raised US$1.5 billion ($2 billion) for her new Web3-focused fund. The debut of Haun Ventures in the public eye also marked the largest debut venture fund ever raised by a solo female founding partner.

Considering the growing importance of environmental, social and governance factors (which includes diversity, equity and inclusion) to institutional investors who are increasing their exposure in the crypto and blockchain industry, crypto investment funds that seek out female-led blockchain companies and projects to invest in stand to benefit both their bottom lines and the communities in which they operate.

But women are not the only ones who need to be engaged. To move the needle meaningfully, men’s participation is equally necessary. Men have to acknowledge that a more gender-equal industry does not come at their expense. Rather, a representative industry — proven to be more innovative and profitable — will mean better business outcomes. The pie doesn’t get split; it expands.

Looking from the inside out

Despite the poor representation that exists today, an increasing number of women remain undeterred, venturing into blockchain with the hope of leveraging the unrealised potential of the technology to create true equity.

A personal favourite of mine is the non-fungible token (NFT) art project and community 8SIAN founded by a fellow Malaysian woman to establish the presence of both women and her culture in the male-dominated, Western-centric NFT space.

Having realised the significance of one’s cultural roots to their sense of self and identity after becoming a mother, Nicole, the founder of 8SIAN, turned to the world of NFTs to spread her message and empower other Asian women.

Countless other women have endeavoured to shape the nascent ecosystem with a view to a new narrative. GroupHUG, an accelerator programme founded by Singaporean Debbie Woon and Randi Zuckerberg, funds female-led blockchain initiatives.

In similar spirit, the acquisition of female tech brand Femcy by upcoming women-only social media platform Eve World to address an issue close to many women’s hearts also illustrates just the kind of perceptiveness women have in using novel applications of blockchain for social good.

Efforts such as these poke holes in toxic gender stereotypes while breaking the inherent biases that stand between millions of women and their potential. They play an important role in shaping the future of blockchain and, by extension, society.

Believing in the promise

As we push for diversity across programmes and within organisations, the need to invest in tomorrow remains crucial. This means that blockchain and other adjacent education should be accessible and promoted to all, while students are made to understand that the industry is gender-neutral and that all of them have an equal shot at realising their true potential in it.

Initiatives like the SheCrypt campaign — where women are supported in their transition into the blockchain space at various stages of their careers through masterclasses and virtual panels — show a lot of promise in this area. But ultimately, for women to truly believe in blockchain’s promise, the industry has to believe in them too.

Katherine Ng is the head of marketing and operations at TZ APAC, an Asia-based blockchain adoption entity supporting the Tezos ecosystem

Photo: Shubham Dhage/Unsplash / GuerillaBuzz

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