It’s the question MyCrypto CEO Taylor Monahan hears more than any other: “What’s it like being a woman in blockchain?” Despite her success starting her own company in this burgeoning field, her womanhood is of more interest than her accomplishments. Women in male-dominated industries are often bombarded with questions about their experience being a minority in their field, and blockchain is no exception. The focus of this oft-repeated question is on the peculiarity of these women, as if they’re a circus sideshow. It ignores their knowledge, talent and capabilities; it’s insulting, and it’s not the best route to getting more women in blockchain.
As if it’s not bad enough to continually ask professional women about their gender, conferences often have entire panels dedicated to the question of what it’s like to be a woman in blockchain. These all-female conference panels, often entitled Women in Blockchain, feature about five women dedicated to discuss, not surprisingly, what it’s like to be a woman in blockchain. Like the two-headed man of the old circus sideshow, these women are isolated and questioned about their unusual choice of profession.
These panels reinforce gender stereotypes that highlight the differences between men and women. Monahan argues that these all-female panels devalue their female participants, “whether they’re designers or marketers or or they’re helping to build companies or whatever it is, it essentially takes all of their expertise and puts it on the back burner. And instead says, ‘hey, you’re a woman talk about that.’”
Certainly there are many all-male panels at conferences, and these have been derided as well. Often referred to as manels, these panels perpetuate the notion that the men are the knowledgeable experts. But there are no manels about what it’s like to be a man in blockchain, and nobody asks them how they maintain work-life balance.
Since Monahan is one of the only female CEOs of a cryptocurrency wallet, she is often the lone woman when asked to participate on a conference panel on these wallets. She describes how a moderator might ask the first male panelist a question like “What’s the biggest problem with building a wallet in the Ethereum space?” The second male panelist might get a question like “What was it like running a wallet during the ICO era?” And when the moderator gets to Monahan, she is asked, “What’s it like being a woman in blockchain?” Monahan says, “It bothers me when my gender is at the forefront, and everything I’ve built, and everything I’ve accomplished and everything I have to share basically comes second to my gender.”
In reality, according to Monahan, the issues that concern women in blockchain are identical to the issues that concern men in blockchain. Whether it’s building hacker-resistant systems or creating a user-friendly product, Monahan says, the issues she faces, “are business problems and human problems and regulatory problems, not gender ones.”
Questions or comments, like asking about women in blockchain, that unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (like women) are often referred to as microaggressions. Asking what it’s like to be a woman in blockchain is a slight, because it implies that blockchain is not a suitable field for women. Microaggressions such as these can have a powerful impact upon psychological well-being and can create inequities at work.
The questions highlight that women are a minority and unusual in the space – exactly the opposite of what women who are struggling to be accepted need. And if this question is in lieu of a more substantive question, it keeps women from affirming and exhibiting their expertise and knowledge in the area. And, perhaps worst of all, by focusing on sex, it makes the differences between men and women seem greater than they really are.
The intentions of conference planners who ask these questions about women and create these all-female panels are most likely honorable. As with many microaggressions against women, the one who commits them often believes they are complimenting or helping women. After all, the goal of having a diverse list of speakers is a noble one, and on top of that, they’re addressing issues that concern women. While true, a better way to help women would be to let them exhibit their expertise in their field alongside their male colleagues.
It is a fantastic goal to attract more women into blockchain and other male-dominated industries, but this isn’t how to get there. Women have significant obstacles to overcome in male-dominated industries, but highlighting how unusual it is to be a woman in the field is not going to eliminate these obstacles. Having men demonstrate their expertise while women talk about their sex is neither the best way to get women interested in a field nor the best way to get women hired. If conference organizers want to support women, they should spotlight their accomplishments by giving women a speaker role or highlighting their knowledge on a substantive panel.