Author: Alli (@sonofalli)
Editor/Graphics: Tina (@fkpxls)
“Identity is a potent force that we ignore and misread at our peril”
– Caroline Criado-Pérez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World
When I was in 5th grade, an “internet safety officer” from our local government came to visit my classroom. He sat at the front of our classroom for two hours on a rainy afternoon and proceeded to scare the sh*t out of my peers and me, talking about digital identity and stranger danger online. At the end of the second hour, the officer–we will call him “Tom”–told the boys to go outside and play while the girls stayed back to talk about “gender-specific internet violence and safety best practices.” Tom, a middle-aged white man, then explained to the classroom of largely pre-pubescent 5th grade girls the importance of hiding our gender online. He discussed the hyper-sexualization of women and girls online and noted that if we did not want to be kidnapped, assaulted, harassed, etc. we should keep our gender identity hidden from the world. 5th grade me took this advice and ran with it. I have Tom to thank for my entire Webkinz collection and initial online usernames being named things like “Craig” and “Paul”. 5th grade me, however, never would have imagined how relevant Tom’s words would still be almost 15 years later.
Obviously, I am no longer surfing the interweb as “Paul.” My digital identity has taken on several different iterations over the past decade, and now in web3, I am curating a new one. While I have made the choice to reveal my gender identity and femininity in online spaces now, not all women or fem presenting/identifying individuals have chosen to do the same. There is value in the fact that we don’t need to reveal these components of our identity online (and value in that many women and non-binary individuals do not), but there are also negative implications for how this can impact the ecosystem we are building in web3.
The world we live in has been curated and crafted for men. Caroline Criado Peréz completes a deep examination of this in Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Our cars, medications, workplaces, and more were constructed based on research and testing that largely overlooked more than half of the human population. The internet is not exempt from this bias. Rather, the online world has become yet another space where “whiteness and maleness are implicit. They are unquestioned. They are the default” (Pérez, 2019). Globally, men are 14% more likely to have internet access and 7% more likely to have access to mobile phones (Inclusive Internet Index, 2021). On top of that, women have a significantly higher chance of experiencing harassment or violence online, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this online abuse (Web Foundation, 2020). These numbers and rates only increase for transgender women, non-binary (NB) individuals, and women of color (Time, 2019).
Women and NB individuals can be intellectually curious about something or have a desire to contribute to the discourse around it, but the presence of abuse and harassment might prohibit them from participating authentically and completely. Anonymity and/or pseudonymity can provide a partial veil of protection against such abuse. Navigating the web using a pseudonym allows the user more control over who can interact with or find them, what their identity looks like online, and how much of themselves and their identifying features they choose to disclose. Twitter and Discord, which have been the primary modes of social and professional connection in web3, thus far do not require real names to be used, allowing for anon or pseudonymous identities to be curated.
While concealing identity can help protect women and NB individuals online, it can also reinforce the dominance of whiteness and maleness as the default in a space. When traditionally underrepresented groups are forced–or choose–to hide their gender/sexuality/race/etc., skewed perceptions of who is in and contributing to said space can be strengthened. This is not a new phenomenon or issue, but it is one that is rapidly emerging in web3 and its communities:
The frustrating truth of these skewed perceptions of who is in and contributing to the space is that while they are distorted and can erase essential contributors in the ecosystem, they are not entirely incorrect; the crypto world does have a gender problem, and in many corners of web3, white cisgendered men take up the most space or have the loudest voices. At the same time, these perceptions prevent more traditionally underrepresented identities from entering the space given that it does not appear welcoming and/or accessible to them, which in turn, leads us to continual gender gaps and inequities.
Trad-tech has long suffered from similar gender gaps and issues. As we move away from the world of trad-tech, we have a chance to not only critique it, but learn from it to prevent the same male-dominated culture from engulfing web3. In trad-tech, 48% percent of women in STEM jobs report discrimination in recruitment/hiring processes. Additionally, 66% percent of women in trad-tech roles view no clear path forward in terms of career trajectory (Women in Tech Statistics Show the Industry Has a Long Way to Go). It is important to note that this bias begins at the recruitment level– ultimately gate-keeping many women from entering the industry at all. This bias thus subsequently furthers the gender imbalance in tech at all higher points and levels: fewer women gaining entry to the space means fewer women in tech roles at all, which means fewer women advancing in tech roles, which means fewer women on executive or leadership teams, which leads back to bias and inequity in hiring– it acts like dominoes.
If we don’t proactively take actions early, the realm of crypto and web3 is at risk of following a similar trajectory. According to a survey from August of 2021 by CNBC, Acorn, and Momentive, 6/10 crypto investors are white, and 67% are men. Additionally, white women make up 19% of the population that invests in crypto, while Black women make up only 4% (Cryptocurrency investing has a big gender problem). Obviously these statistics depict crypto as a space that is not entirely welcoming or accessible which leads us back to the original point about women/NB individuals feeling (and being!) safer or protected behind pseudonymous/anon accounts when trying to participate in or enter new tech spaces like web3, and also works to exacerbate the existing male dominance and bro culture–enter the toxic cycle. If we do not want to end up in the same cyclical domino hell of trad-tech then we need to start addressing this problem at the entry point or first domino now.
Some people argue we should stop sharing statistics like those above that portray the gender imbalance in crypto and stop talking about the lack of women in web3/tech spaces. They believe that to increase participation of women/NB people in web3, we should highlight successful women and NB-led projects and work. In Karen Hao’s 2018 article on women in crypto, developer Jen Macchiarelli was quoted posing the following: “Do you want to be known for what you’re interested in, what you want to do, or do you want to be known as the person who always wants to discuss women in crypto? I think it does feel like a big risk to have this conversation” (The first rule of being a woman in crypto is you do not talk about being a woman in crypto). While there is validity in this argument, it can encourage and perpetuate problematic assumptions. Yes, discussing the lack of women/NB individuals can be discouraging or make the space appear uninviting. Yes, showcasing and uplifting the work of women/NB contributors in the space is encouraging and exciting—however, the latter does not diminish the former. The two narratives can exist simultaneously and work hand in hand–shedding light on the gender gap existing in crypto does not take away from the success or work of women and NB founders, contributors, or leaders in the space.
Others argue that “the open nature of the crypto industry allows women with strong self-motivation and learning ability to take a lead.” Similarly, this mindset can encourage harmful beliefs. As Hao put it, this perspective “suggests that the greatest obstacle to getting women involved is not a flawed system, but their own insufficient efforts” (The first rule of being a woman in crypto is you do not talk about being a woman in crypto). This argument oversimplifies the obstacles one must clear to gain the “ability to take a lead.” For those with existing networks, wealth, and general tech knowledge/experience that are entering the space, this mindset may more properly apply. For others, “self-motivation” and learning how to take ownership may not suffice. A culture that promotes and elevates the loudest voices or “bro-talk” can inherently hinder one from bringing their holistic perspectives and knowledge to the table. As a result, their voices and thoughts can get drowned out by the louder, more dominant, or more connected individuals in their shared space. Again, acknowledging the challenges facing some women and NB people in the space does not take away from the inspiring self-motivation and leadership of others. Those with existing connections, prominent voices, and leadership roles can uplift the voices and work of newcomers attempting to gain their footing, who can then reciprocate by paying it forward.
Several women/NB-led initiatives in web3 have been started in the last couple of months with this goal of bringing more crypto-curious gender diverse folks into web3. In addition, some projects and teams are putting in extra effort to curate communities and teams that are diverse. Beyond initiatives focused on onboarding diverse groups, we also need ways to retain these groups in the web3 arena and create safe spaces for them to ask questions and learn. In other words, we need to not only bring more women and NB individuals into web3, but also ensure that they stay and are supported along the way. Structural change across the current ecosystem is paramount if we truly want to break the current cycle. Given that we are largely building the foundations of this new version of the web, there is ample time and opportunity to create it—hope and opportunity are still very much palpable. Yet, it is paramount that the pressure to request change, build, and uphold a new paradigm does not solely fall all on women and NB individuals. There is an opportunity for everyone to drive the change. We all can, and should be committed to onboarding, and retaining more talent and voices into this space.
It’s clear that these issues matter for everyone, regardless of identity. Let’s outline why. First, women and NB individuals deserve to have their voices heard and have equal access to opportunities to contribute to/build in any and all spaces. Period. If you do not believe this, keep reading. Additionally, elevating women and NB individuals elevates everyone. According to a 2020 McKinsey DEI research report, “companies with more than 30 percent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30, and in turn these companies were more likely to outperform those with even fewer women executives, or none at all” (Diversity wins: How inclusion matters). The lessons learned in the trad-tech world don’t have to be repeated in crypto.
In addition, lack of diversity can lead to the development of biased products (think AI). If you want your web3 project or company to succeed, if you want to succeed, and if we want web3 and the blockchain to thrive, we must include diverse perspectives and identities. The lessons learned in the trad-tech world don’t have to be repeated in crypto. Finally, if Web3 preaches the values of decentralization– of dismantling existing systems to allow for collective ownership and control. One of those existing destructive systems is… you guessed it: the patriarchy. Dismantling existing systems of oppression is a crucial step in building web3. The collective ownership we strive for requires critical examination of the role each of us plays and has played in upholding and sustaining such destructive systems of power. We have the collective responsibility to take ownership of the roles we play—to self-reflect, educate, and strive for improvement.
In the spirit of uplifting women/NB voices in web3, here are some further thoughts on this:
Okay Alli, that was a lot of complaining, arguing, and oversharing about some guy named Tom. What are the tangible to-do’s, the takeaways from this piece? I, for one, am starting by reflecting on my own privileges, experiences, and perceptions that impact how I interact with and exist in the world of web3. During my time in education, I studied social justice education and the role that educator bias and identity can play in perpetuating prejudice and inequity in the classroom. Education expert Linda Darling-Hammond argues that in order for teachers to successfully teach social justice, they need to first be able to grasp their own identity as it relates to injustice or privilege. When we understand and can acknowledge our own privileges and biases, we can better contribute to, listen, and engage with work and others that aim to eradicate the existing systems that uphold them. If the hope for web3 is to complete this work, we all must commit to learning and grappling with our complex selves and perspectives. This work goes beyond simply acknowledging what privileges you hold–it means working to understand how those privileges lead to bias, both unconscious and not, and how this bias impacts all aspects of yourself and your surroundings: your actions, your perspectives, your friendships, your work, your appearance, your safety, your interests, your conversations, your hobbies, etc. In regard to web3, maybe this means asking how your bias influences your interactions in the ecosystem, your leadership or contribution in a DAO, what projects or initiatives you follow or support, how much weight your voice holds in the space, who you are surrounded by in the space, etc.
This work is hard–it is taxing and emotional. It also requires that we commit to supporting, hearing, and learning from/with others and their complex selves and perspectives. This means being an ally; it means being a listener, advocate, and critic. It means calling out biases and imbalances in the communities you occupy (e.g. that bro talk in your Discord), critiquing and examining product design choices that exclude certain demographics, asking–and listening to–women/NB individuals in your communities and spaces about what they need or want and how you can help, and/or putting in the extra effort to create a diverse leadership/core team and foster an inclusive culture. Without such individual introspection and collective learning, without empathy and support that truly reflects the “WAGMI” culture we continually name, the decentralized future we dream of will remain exactly that: a dream. For this dream to be carried out, we must start by putting in this critical work. So start asking yourself these questions, start listening to and supporting others, check out some of the resources shared in this piece and beyond–truly “DYOR.” And after all, “we are early.” So start now.
The future of work is coming, and we are all its contributors.
If these are questions you’d also like to explore, we invite you to become a contributor to the Station protocol or to participate in our research efforts through Newstand, Station’s publication focused on exploring the possibility of work in an era of hyper connectivity and fluidity. Station Newstand is open 24/7 for submissions and experimentations from contributors around the pluriverse.
Special thanks to Kassen, Alex, Mind, and Amrith for contributing to the edits.