By Teresa Beata Bundgård
Experiences of Sexism in the Crypto-Space
On a late autumn day, I sit down in front of my computer and open Zoom – a trusted friend and help in the time of covid-19. The questions are ready, and the background research has been done, notes neatly written in my notebook, with a cup of freshly brewed tea next to it. My first interview for my research is about to begin, but however cosy the atmosphere is when we begin, it soon starts to fade away to a more serious feeling, and I cannot avoid being emotionally affected when my informant, Krista, starts telling me about her experiences as a woman in the crypto space with graphical stories of sexism and harassment.
The purpose of this interview and my journey as a Junior Researcher at ETHOS is to dive into the (imagined) communities involved in cryptocurrency investment. I had personally been interested in cryptocurrencies and investing for a while, but it was mainly after covid-19 had lifted its fog that I started talking to more people about the topic. Here, I discovered a certain pattern where discussions about cryptocurrencies were mostly created and dominated by men. Despite them being willing to engage in explanations about the topic with me, they rarely asked me questions back or expected me, as a girl, to have invested myself or have knowledge that could supplement theirs. My interest in other women’s experiences in the crypto space had been spiked.
This blog post will seek to take you on an ethnographic journey diving into the experiences of inequalities, gatekeeping and sexism that exist in the crypto communities online following my key informant’s, Krista, story.
An Alternative Community comes to Light
Both offline and online, countless communities have been created to build a community for individuals interested in investing in the popular – and often rather hyped – digital currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. From a feminist viewpoint, it is impossible not to notice the gender gap and lack of influence from female role models and representation in said communities and as an anthropologist, I wish to unfold and present the lived experience of women interested in cryptocurrencies and their experiences. My hope is that I thus will be able to bring an understanding of the reasons why I had experienced women as being silent and invisible in crypto communities, or if I was simply looking at the wrong places. There are, of course, many other factors such as age, ethnicity and income group which could affect this, but this scope only deals with that of gender.
Interestingly, in my search for these stories, I found that many women had created their separate communities on social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook, where they were able to engage more actively without the fear of harassment and judging. Here, I found several women who had consciously decided to be part of a female-targeted crypto community and turned their backs on and rejected the so-called “regular” communities and online groups. Often, I found that the groups utilized binary, female stereotypes in terms of colour (often pink and red), language and group names to signify a community where femininity was respected and welcomed.
To broaden my understanding of how the issues of gendered gatekeeping and communities are presented and experienced, my methods consisted of both qualitative, in-depth interviews and quantitative scrapes of LinkedIn posts that I would collect through a manually created python-script. I also made use of the concept of Imagined Communities created by political scientist Benedict Anderson (1936-215), which beautifully can illustrate the nature of both the general crypto space that has certain masculinized norms of behaviour and gendered gatekeeping, according to my informants, as well as the newly emerged, alternative and feminized community (Anderson, 1991).
I first got into contact with Krista – an entrepreneurial and feministic spirit who had started her own online community for women interested in cryptocurrencies – through LinkedIn as we had a common friend from the start-up environment. She gladly agreed to be part of my research, and I felt that she had much at heart on the matter. Due to her past experiences, she had the – perhaps controversial – realization that the separation of men and women in the investing space can be necessary for the women’s sake to give them control of their economy. A controversial take, perhaps, in a time rather oriented toward feminism and where gender separations are often deemed politically incorrect.
Years ago, Krista had found herself curious about investing in the newly emerging trend of cryptocurrency and did, as many of us do in this age, turn to the internet, and more specifically, the mother of online communities: Facebook. Here, despite her excitement to learn more, she experienced both gatekeeping and harassment and found it difficult to communicate and gain knowledge on her topic simply because of her gender.
Krista wondered why women in the crypto community were so quiet yet recognized it as a strategy against being targeted and harassed. She gave examples of comments she herself had received after asking a question on a Facebook group about Ethereum, a newer type of cryptocurrency at the time: “You are a woman, so you are never going to understand it anyway” and “Oh, you are stupid because Bitcoin is the only coin that makes sense”.
In the end, she thought that the separation of men and women in investment spaces can be necessary for women’s sake to give them control of their economy. To me, this is an interesting – perhaps controversial – take in a time where discussions and arguments for gender separations can be a dangerous topic in today’s politically correct climate.
This led her to create her own digital community for women interested in crypto investments that soon became a success. She had in fact had a rather typical experience being a woman in the crypto investment groups and countless women came to her community’s (online) doorstep with their experiences of degrading comments and gatekeeping, often being dismissed with lines such as “invest in X and you will get rich, but don’t try to understand it – it is too difficult for a girl”.
They also found that those already on the “inside” of the crypto community would express themselves in technically savvy ways and rather than being open to explaining cryptocurrencies to curious beginners, they would judge and dismiss newcomers, creating a “circle of gatekeeping”. Mainly those on the inside of the community had the knowledge that was needed to enter the community and were not very willing to share it to anyone – especially women – on the outside. In short, many women were looking for but were denied in what they described as “regular adult discussions” with someone who would not simply judge them for their lack of knowledge on the topic they were curious about.
Backlash and Reactions from the Community
Deciding to create her own community specifically targeted at women, however, did not let Krista escape the harassment. People soon started to text her privately, some even digging deeper and finding her professional contact information, writing hateful, and in her own words, “brutal” emails, leading Krista to consider involving the police.
Surprisingly, she also found a smaller group of women targeting her aggressively despite her own belief of standing up for women to access knowledge about and community about personal finances. Things started getting out of hand culminating in one woman urging her to self-harm writing her a message containing the words “I have many people around me who killed themselves, and you should be one of them too”.
Krista was not able to answer why exactly this happened, but perhaps thought that this group of women believed she was deviating from the norm – the norm of what was expected of them as women – but what if this norm was to keep quiet and accept the occasional harassment?
These findings led me to wonder if some women feared further exclusion from the (Imagined) crypto community if more focus on gender was created, especially if this was seen as an attack on this community. One might suggest that women in this community sought to camouflage themselves and avoid standing out or they were willing to accept the masculine rules of the game and not ask for any help as women. Here, the part of my research that focused on the social media platform LinkedIn shows an interesting trend related to this.
An Exploration into Methodology
Instead of mirroring the discussions and experiences from my interviews, LinkedIn was rather found to be having an overwhelmingly positive and powerful atmosphere, drawing lines to the trope of the girl-boss – think Spice Girl’s Girl Power – and entrepreneurial visions. The posts – which were scraped using keywords together relating to the topic such as women, limitations, inequalities, crypto – mainly focused on themes such as crafting opportunities (for women and sometimes also different types of marginalised groups) and transforming the financial industry. Although some posts bring statistical inequalities into the general discussion, the focus was more on how cryptocurrencies and the opportunities they brought with them could be used as a tool for positive changes and used in an intervention in relation to gendered economics.
Due to these findings, my research also started to involve how the methods and the values particular for the platforms, affected the research. Women in personal interviews openly discuss the issues, gatekeeping and sexism present in the community and actively seek to bring attention to the problems.
However, LinkedIn presented a discussion about powerful, entrepreneurial characters and personas, showing the strength you could gain from using cryptocurrencies as a tool. Of course, this discrepancy shows something about the methodological approach – one going deeper, while one mainly scraping the surface, but also about the conflicting attitudes and behaviour of the women in different circumstances and relations.
There exist several barriers for entry into the crypto-community – both a societal barrier, based on gender norms and stereotypes and a technical barrier creating a certain power dynamic based on who is willing to share the knowledge. By seeing the online crypto community as imagined, it is a community that might be paralleled to the start-up community. Here, a common identity is created through gender, technical knowledge/professional affiliation, and feelings of belonging thus creating an imagined community. Such communities can easily fall into the habit of rejecting individuals that do not fit into the idea of this identity (Bundgård, 2021).
However, compared to the start-up community which have been interested in maintaining a common identity for the sake of their work, the reasons for the gatekeeping here are most likely different. That is, as described in the interviews, based on negative beliefs about women’s skills and ability to contribute.
Based on the findings so far, the women interested in investing in cryptocurrencies one could generalise the existence of two groups: 1) those who stay in the “standard” crypto-community but might keep quiet – or invisible – to avoid negative attention and somewhat accept the behavioural norms and 2) those who decide to create their own, separate (imagined) communities of women. This shows how the intersection of the invention of technological tools and knowledge and society and its e.g. gendered stereotypes can affect our behaviour in new ways.
One might ask what the best outcome would be if we were to create a more gender-equal world and economy, but the answer is complex. Creating divisions in society between groups might both empower marginalised groups who now have a space to evolve their competencies. However, it might also further the separation if they do not later find a way to work together. In Krista’s case, she found that after women had engaged in their separate communities and become more competent, they were treated better by the general community. She also hosted offline meetings that were open for both men and women and now found a much more inclusive and friendly atmosphere, causing her to feel hopeful for the future.
Anderson, B. R. O. 1. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Rev. and extended ed.). London; New York: Verso
Bundgård, T. (2021). The Importance of Identity in the Startup Community: Identity as Passport, Guideline and Motivation in the Startup Community in Prague. Bachelor Thesis.
University of Southern Denmark.