Blockchain Welcomes All, but General Tech Industry Lacks in Diversity

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Industry stakeholders say the crypto and blockchain space is becoming more racially diverse as the technology spreads across the world.

Financial inclusion is often cited as a reason for the pursuit of crypto and blockchain innovation. With gatekeepers monopolizing the global financial scene, several disenfranchised demographics have seen themselves cut off from viable channels of economic prosperity.

Crypto and blockchain products are increasingly opening up international payment corridors, ensuring the democratization of global economics. Other platforms are creating solutions aimed at solving long-standing developmental issues in historically disenfranchised regions such as Africa. As an intrinsically open ecosystem, crypto and blockchain innovation continues to spread to different corners of the world, and organizations in the industry tend to have a global workforce with team members of diverse nationalities.

Amid the push for economic and technological self-actualization comes the need for racial diversity and inclusion, especially within the context of the current political climate. With matters concerning racial bias and discrimination dominating social discourse across the globe, perhaps it is time for some introspection about how the crypto industry stacks up within the broader tech and financial services sectors.

Racial bias and discrimination in Silicon Valley

Amid the overwhelming uproar that accompanied George Floyd’s death, organizations across the world added their voices in support of racial equality and the eradication of race-based discrimination. Crypto and tech companies also joined in publishing messages of solidarity with the Black community in America. In a conversation with Cointelegraph, Jay Hao, the CEO of crypto exchange platform OKEx, added to the ongoing conversation surrounding racial inequality:

“There is deep inequality and injustice in many parts of the world when it comes to the color of a person’s skin. This is something that runs very deep in society but I am very hopeful that we will start to see a change and that we will be able to live in a more just world where the color of your skin is irrelevant.”

In the past, racism scandals have rocked United States tech giants such as FacebookGoogle and Amazon, among others. Apart from discriminatory practices, these incidents have also involved retaliatory measures against employees who speak out against workplace bias. Back in 2014, Silicon Valley companies began publicly publishing their workforce demographics. In the six years since then, data released by these companies shows little by way of improvement in diversity and inclusion.

Technology should be neutral, but the reality as it exists today paints a different picture. Despite being governed by codes and algorithmic logic, tech inventions can be seen operating in ways that signal acquired biases. For example, it has been reported that some automatic soap dispensers for handwashing are configured to not detect darker skin tones. Speech recognition tech can function improperly with certain vocal inflections common to particular ethnic groups.

Jacky Alcine, a software engineer, discovered in 2015 that Google’s image recognition algorithm was classifying pictures of Black people as gorillas. Amid the furor that followed the revelation, Google simply blocked image recognition functionality for pictures of gorillas without doing much to solve the underlying problem.

Whether these algorithmic biases are deliberately the result of the prejudices held by instrument designers or are simple errors is a matter for debate, but eliminating them is one of the core hurdles being faced in the field of machine learning.

Is the crypto and blockchain space more or less diverse than the tech industry?

Given the fact that the tech and financial industries feed into the crypto space, it is perhaps a given that the latter will exhibit a similar culture to the established realities of the former. In a note to Cointelegraph, Stephen Richardson, the vice president of product strategy at Fireblocks — a crypto transfer network platform — stated:

“I would say that at this moment the diversity and inclusion in crypto would be a 6 on a 10 scale. While I believe the crypto community is a relatively open community, there are not a significant number of women and underrepresented minorities in crypto leadership positions (look across the biggest exchanges, technology providers, and financial institutions). This is very similar to the general tech and financial services industry.”

According to Richardson, the talent migration from the tech and financial services sector into crypto mostly contains the traditionally represented demographic, and any major improvements in diversity and inclusion for the crypto space have to be driven by similar changes in the broader tech and financial establishments. In a conversation with Cointelegraph, Herbert Sim, a serial tech investor and the founder of Crypto Chain University, offered a more optimistic assessment of crypto’s diversity:

“Unlike other tech and financial markets, the cryptocurrency one sees an immense distribution among people of various age, nationality, and gender. The recent statistics show that the number of women trading digital money surged by 40%, and cryptocurrencies spread 4 times faster in developing countries than in developed ones. A decentralized nature of blockchain works well in practice giving equal rights to everyone regardless of financial or national factors.”

Related: The Number of Women in Crypto and Blockchain Is Skyrocketing in 2020

Faith Obafemi, a blockchain lawyer at Future-Proof Intelligence — an internet-native company advising on emerging technologies such as blockchain and cryptocurrency — also offered further insight, telling Cointelegraph that the “space is more diverse and inclusive,” adding:

“Perhaps, this can be attributed to the fact that fundamentally, crypto and blockchain have the main goal of eliminating barriers to inclusivity. Also, there are under-represented people spearheading some of the top projects in the space. And they’ve got significant support from the community. This does not negate the fact that more still needs to be done. Example, taking deliberate steps to eliminate systematic and unconscious bias.”

The roadblocks

In a perfect system, meritocracy should drive the tech industry and, by extension, the crypto space. Indeed, having the best talents working on creating cutting-edge solutions will only help to quicken the relentless march of progress. The presence of discriminatory or exclusionary practices either deliberately or as a byproduct of implicit bias runs contrary to the ethos of meritocracy. However, anecdotal and factual evidence exists to suggest that such prejudices come up across several facets of the tech and financial services space.

According to Obafemi, implicit bias can form a significant roadblock for people from minority groups in the crypto space, as people of color often have to navigate the initial assumption that they are ill-equipped for the job based solely on the hue of their skin. In the broader tech scene, this prejudiced view also extends beyond the hiring cycle into daily interactions with the tag of “diversity hire” often in close accompaniment.

Bias in “badging” is a common complaint of Black workers at tech firms, with the practice demonstrating an insidious message that certain people are not welcome or do not belong in the industry. In response, some people from minority groups in the technology and financial services spheres engage in code-switching — conscious acts aimed at conforming to the unwritten, unspoken “culture fit” of these industries. Funding for projects is also another issue for those from minority groups, and according to Richardson, this problem is an extension of the reality in the broader technology and educational institutions, adding:

“In general, the crypto space like the tech space is driven by a group of technology/alumni networks and investor access (think top university alumni, incubators, VC firms, etc.), and generally minority representation is historically low in these spaces. Until recently there has not been a concerted effort towards investment dollars and mentorship resources specifically targeted towards technologists and entrepreneurs that come from underrepresented minority groups, and I am not sure that this sentiment/effort has reached the conscience of leaders within the crypto space.”

However, Fireblocks’ Richardson declared his hope that the current global awareness of racial injustice might spur major stakeholders to drive the needed change. Speaking during the third edition of the Cointelegraph Talks Series series, Anino Emuwa, the founder of advisory firm Avandis Consulting, argued that industry leaders were integral for driving any improvement in diversity and inclusion. For Sim, skin color plays an insignificant role in the crypto space, adding:

“Thus far, I would not say that there are visible racial prejudices in the world of blockchain and cryptocurrencies. If there are any discrimination or inequality in this market, it is not about skin color, but rather about geopolitical factors, or, more specifically different attitudes of governments to cryptocurrencies and their stricter regulation.”

Obafemi also offered a similar argument, stating: “Most people only care about the value you can bring to their project. Keyword: MOST. It matters not to them whether you are a woman or a person of color.” She went on to add: “The rest find it surprising to see a woman who understands blockchain. They expect men to be more knowledgeable.”

What about the pipeline?

Tech and financial services enterprises need to turn a profit, and this requires a continuous stream of talented individuals to create innovative solutions. The same reality exists for the crypto space, and any talk of diversity and inclusion should extend to the talent pipeline.

Indeed, the next generation of workers needs to include more people from minority groups to help in improving overall representation figures. On this note, organizations in the crypto and blockchain space are developing educational content to get more young people interested in tech. 

OKEx’s Hao remarked that top firms in the industry should only care about talent: “There are no real barriers to entering the space. Top crypto leaders look to hire top talent for their companies, whether that is male, female, people of color, white people, etc,” adding: “We all face the same challenges, which is increasing awareness and education in general.”

For Hao, efforts at improving the diversity of the crypto and blockchain space need to include initiatives aimed at incentivizing young people into pursuing careers in computer programming: “More educational courses and masters are appearing all the time in blockchain and crypto and I think this is also important.”

As reported by Cointelegraph on multiple occasions, several crypto and blockchain companies such as Binance and OKEx are developing learning content for the community. Earlier in June, peer-to-peer crypto exchange Paxful announced plans for online Bitcoin classes across Africa. CoinDCX, an Indian crypto exchange, also recently launched a blockchain-based educational platform.

Related: LGBTQ+ in Blockchain/Crypto: A Safe Space With Room for More Inclusion

Diversity in the context of a global crypto community

Amid the decentralization of knowledge to cover more places around the world is the desire to see entrepreneurs create solutions targeted at unique issues in their respective communities. From Nigeria to Kenya and even South Africa, young people are leveraging blockchain technology in areas such as rural electrification, agriculture, identity management and money transfer, among others.

Indeed, Africa’s young population is reportedly taking to crypto and blockchain technology. Data from Google Trends shows Nigeria as having the highest search interest for Bitcoin in the world, with South Africa and Ghana also in the top five.

In the United States, initiatives such as Black Girls Code are also trying to get more underrepresented people into the tech pipeline. These organizations are even trying to solve multiple racial and gender diversity issues by encouraging young Black girls to take up interests in fields such as computer programming and STEM education.

With blockchain also becoming more global, it is perhaps important to examine the concept of diversity away from the borders of Silicon Valley, as the internet provides the base layer for the propagation and dissemination of knowledge, spreading technological innovation across the world. According to Hao, the open-source nature of crypto and blockchain innovation is driving global participation and fostering greater diversity and inclusion:

“I think that because the crypto space is so new and so much of the technology and programming languages are able to be learned online open source with no cost, it makes it easier for more people to enter when compared to the broader tech industry.”

Within the context of a global technological movement, terms such as “minority” tend to lose any real meaning. In a multiracial society such as the U.S., it is perhaps relevant to examine the level of diversity and inclusiveness. However, outside of the U.S., people from different backgrounds and ethnicities are participating in the expanding crypto and blockchain landscape. In many of these places, these new entrants are navigating difficulties that stem from inadequate technical education and poor internet access. For Grey Jabesi, the host of the podcast Hardc0re Crypt0, the onus is on passionate and driven individuals to excel in the industry:

“This is a new industry with infinite opportunities but one has to be curious, creative, and self-starting because nobody is going to hold your hand, it’s not a 4-year degree program. You just need a Do It Yourself attitude and anyone can do that.”