I seem to make a habit of being a part of male-dominated industries. My first career was in public policy, putting me in a minority much of the time as I sat in think tank seminars and news conferences surrounded by a sea of grey suits. Politics has at least become a bit more female in the last 15 years and several leading British think tank directors are now women. So surely it was high time for me to move into another male-dominated industry.
In my current role at the Bitcoin Foundation I have met many talented women leading startups, launching successful new ventures or coding away behind the scenes. Yet females in fintech remain rare. So it’s great to see Bitcoin Women’s Day being celebrated, not just because it’s sometimes lonely to be pioneering new paths in a man’s world but also because, let’s face it, without taking advantage of women’s talents, the sector would be placed at a commercial disadvantage.
We already know that the innovative potential of bitcoin and bitcoin-related businesses is huge. East London, where I live, has become a cluster for many such enterprises. Describing the phenomenon, an article in the Observer newspaper this weekend entitled ‘Can Hipsters Save the World?’ references economist Douglas McWilliams’ new book The Flat White Economy which claims that these types of companies contributed 7.6% of the UK’s GDP in 2012. By 2025, he estimates, it will rise to 15.8% making it the largest single business sector in the UK. As journalist Ed Cumming explains: “Named after the favourite drink of the fixed-gear generation, the flat white economy is a portmanteau phrase for an “amazing phenomenon that has surreptitiously changed the whole nature of London – and to some extent the UK economy”.
The UK Chancellor appears to have faith in fintech and bitcoin too. When he spoke at the launch of Innovate Finance last summer, George Osborne took a positive stance towards digital currencies saying: “With the right backing from government, I believe we can make London the fintech capital of the world”.
Britain’s willingness to embrace new financial technologies is in keeping with its overall support for innovative industries including pharmaceuticals, the creative industries and green technologies. The UK ranked 2nd in the world in the 2014 Global Innovation Index and new research published by Nesta shows that UK investment in innovation has been increasing, reaching £137.5bn in 2011. Nesta’s Innovation Index aims to measure the full range of ‘intangible’ investments that help to make innovation happen, going beyond research and development (R&D). Innovation investment far outstripped ‘tangible’ investments in 2011 (£137.5bn versus £89.8bn), and the gap has been widening.
How much greater could this economic contribution be if the best female talent was attracted to work in fintech? Yet the technology industry’s poor record of gender diversity is well-known. Top tech companies are, on average, 70% male and this worsens when you reach board level. Indeed, a recent Gartner report stated that no progress has been made in employing women in technology over the last decade and the world of finance is no better with only 6 per cent of venture-capital funds employing female funders, actually decreasing from 10 percent in 1999.
One marked shift, however, is the rise of the angel investor. Only ten years ago women made up less than 10 percent of angel investors. Now that number is closer to 20 percent, according to a recent Bloomberg article and more female angels means more women-funded startups with groups like 37angels, Pipeline Fellowship and GoldenSeeds starting to change the way things get done. The UK government and others are also putting huge amounts of effort into attracting women into technology jobs and innovative industries (a list of some of these useful initiatives is given here: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/14/women-technology-inequality-10-years-female).
And, as my colleague Jinyoung Lee Englund has written elsewhere on this blog, jobs in tech can be very attractive to women looking for flexible work, where they can set their own hours and be their own boss. Even more so once they have families and daughters of their own. As the ‘Flat White Economy’ grows it is likely that more and more opportunities will open up and women will be tempted to consider such careers as both possible and desirable for themselves.
Just maybe by the time they grow up our daughters will sit back comfortably in their boardroom seats and chuckle at the idea of needing an International Women’s Day at all. We can only hope so.
Helen Disney is in charge of Outreach for the Bitcoin Foundation and is currently building a new series of developer conferences, DevCore. She was previously founder and CEO of the Stockholm Network, a pan-European think tank. Over the course of her career, she has organised hundreds of conferences – from bespoke policy seminars to multi-country lecture tours, media launches and webinars – and developed event partnerships with The Economist, FDI magazine, the World Intellectual Property Organisation and various UN agencies. Most recently, she was part of the conference team for #Bitcoin2014 in Amsterdam and DevCore Boston. Her events have hosted top speakers including senior politicians, political advisors, columnists, economists, entrepreneurs and innovators.
She has also worked in journalism as an editorial writer for The Times and her articles have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Europe, Financial Times, Newsweek, The Daily Express and Public Finance magazine. She is married with a son and daughter, and lives and works in East London.