• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

This Is What It’s Like To Be a Woman at a Bitcoin Meet-up

Bitcoin

Despite an uncomfortable experience, one bitcoin enthusiast encourages more women to get involved. Bitcoin is at heart of both finance and tech, two industries that carry tremendous weight and have traditionally struggled to attract women.

By Arianna Simpson

The other night my good friend and fellow cryptoenthusiast Ryan Shea suggested we head to a new Bitcoin meet-up neither of us had been to before. I agreed to meet him there, and though the conversation was stimulating, much of the experience was pretty demeaning.

I walk in and a group of people are already sitting at a long table. I say hi and hover for a second, determining where to sit.

Entirely uninvited, and before I even have a chance to react, one guy proceeds to grab me by the waist and pull me into an awkward, grope-y side hug next to him on the bench. I’ve never met this man in my life. I try giving him the benefit of the doubt and make some quip about his being a friendly sort, but it gets uncomfortable pretty quickly when he puts his hand on my leg and leaves it there until I squirm uncomfortably.

Unsurprisingly, this type of treatment wasn’t specially reserved for me. The person who actually suggested the event to Ryan was another young woman (the only other woman at the event), a VC who was in town from San Francisco and was interested in checking it out for the first time.

The aforementioned groper knew Ryan vaguely from other Bitcoin events, and greeted their arrival with a warm, “Oh, nice to see you! I see you brought your girlfriend this time.”

When the two of them try to point out that a) they are not together and b) she was actually the one who had brought him, they are cut off with a swift, “Sure, sure, I just wanted to see what the dynamic was between you two.”

Apparently that’s code for “checking if you’re okay with me hitting on her,” as that’s exactly what he proceeds to do.

The guy sitting on the other side of me turns and introduces himself. Turns out, he’s the organizer and leader of the meet-up.

He asks: “So, how did you find out about this?”

I’m honestly not sure if he means the meet-up or Bitcoin in general, so I go with the latter and tell him I’ve been interested (okay, obsessed — my friend Sam Smith may or may not have nicknamed me Cryptoqueen) since mid-2013, which is when I started buying some.

He then starts to look at me like I’ve suddenly morphed into a unicorn. Literally: bulging eyes, mouth slightly agape, the whole nine yards. Apparently the expected response would have been that I was Ryan’s friend/girlfriend/sister who had somehow accidentally ended up there.

“Seriously? You mean you actually own bitcoins? You don’t look like someone who would even know about Bitcoin!”

Err…thanks?

It’s a reaction I’m familiar with — I usually get the same one when people hear I have a motorcycle and, no, it’s not a Vespa — so I just smile it off and start explaining my interest in the international implications of widespread Bitcoin adoption, especially in countries where currency manipulation by corrupt governments has caused rampant hyperinflation and a host of other economic woes.

I conclude the thought, and he (again, staring like I’m some sort of extraterrestrial creature) goes, “Wow. Women don’t usually say that type of things.”

I mean, how do you even respond to that?

Undeterred, I try to sidestep it and go on with my argument, concluding that what I am describing is “much more effective and efficient” than the current system.

“Well,” he says looking at me knowingly, “Women don’t usually think in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.”

CharlieandtheChocolateA few minutes later he starts describing an app he is working on to someone else at the table. “You see, women don’t care about crypto currencies, so we don’t have to design for them.”

When I tell him he’s wrong, he smartly replies, completely in earnest, “Oh okay, cool, so if we start dating I can use the app with you!”

The irony here is that he actually meant these things as compliments. But what he was implying that the bar for women is so low that my entirely unremarkable comments put me lightyears ahead of the “average woman” (whatever that even means).

Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I’m pretty thick-skinned. My self esteem remained intact throughout the exchange; if anything, it made me more determined to learn.

I was not even made to feel unwelcome; these fellows were clearly thrilled at the presence of two women at the event. The problem lies in the conditions under which our company was desired. We were not treated as peers or individuals who might be able to contribute intelligently to the discussion. We were ogled and assumed to be someone’s girlfriend, or someone’s potential future girlfriend.

Was either of us mistreated? Technically, no. But the conditions under which our presence was accepted were such that from the moment we entered the room, the other attendees’ preconceptions put us at a distinct disadvantage.

Perhaps this would be a good time to recall Warren Buffett’s comment that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was only competing with half of the population.

Being underestimated can be a surprisingly effective tool in the appropriate context, but perhaps that’s just me being overly optimistic. I know many women, many of whom are far smarter than I am, who would have felt seriously out of place there. Would they go back to the next meet-up? I doubt it. If the organizer of the meet-up makes people feel so unwelcome, it sets the tone for the rest of the conversation.

I’m not bringing up these comments because my feelings were hurt, and the last thing I need is sympathy. I’m also not concerned that one particular guy thinks women couldn’t possibly know about Bitcoin, or that another grabbed at me. But unfortunately this is representative of a larger trend.

The current generation of hackathon organizers (largely led by the singular efforts of Dave Fontenot —hellllllyeah) is making a concerted effort to encourage the participation of women at their events, and while I’ve still gotten my share of off-color comments, the situation is gradually improving.

Since Bitcoin is still so new, we have the rare opportunity to get onboard before the ship has sailed, becoming knowledgeable before a vast majority of people have ever even heard of it. Learning about it now, instead of trying to play catch-up — as it often seems like women are in STEM fields, programming, or traditional finance — will surely reap great benefits.

I think my experience at the meet-up is worth sharing because Bitcoin lies at the heart of both finance and tech, two industries that carry tremendous weight and which have traditionally struggled to attract women. Given the events of the other night, this is hardly surprising.

I am undeterred and if anything will be even more proactive about attending these events. In my mind, it’s a little preposterous that if I want to do so, however, I have to be okay with being felt up and indirectly insulted.

If women fail to take an active interest in Bitcoin now, when it is still in its infancy and its potential is largely untapped, we will have yet another sector in which the gender is underrepresented and trailing. Bitcoin as a currency has the ability to revolutionize the banking and financial system, but the implication of Bitcoin as a protocol extend much further than that. I’ll write a post of my own on that soon, but in the meantime I recommend you check out Mark Andreessen’s excellent post on why Bitcoin matters.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Do you think Bitcoin matters? Why or why not?

Arianna Simpson

About the guest blogger: Arianna Simpson has spent her career to date working in tech, first in startups and most recently at Facebook. Currently, she is particularly interested bitcoin and the various potential applications of the underlying protocol.