IEEE Blockchain Podcast Series: Episode 12
A Conversation with Julie Frizzo-Barker
Lead Researcher, Maiden Global
Listen to Episode 12 (MP3, 45 MB)
Part of the IEEE Blockchain Podcast Series
Brian Walker: Welcome to the IEEE Blockchain Podcast Series, an IEEE Digital Studio Production. This podcast series entitled Research Notes in Blockchain is hosted by Quinn DuPont, Former Assistant Professor at the University College Dublin School of Business and Founder of Alumni, a Web3 startup with a mission of putting university diplomas on blockchain. Quinn is also the author of "Crypto Currencies and Blockchains." In this episode, Julie Frizzo-Barker discusses her PhD dissertation research on the role gender plays in the blockchain and crypto industries and sheds light on the importance of discourse and language usage in shaping the blockchain technology space.
Quinn DuPont: Thank you for joining us, Julie. This is a very exciting topic that we're talking about today, and I really wanted to speak with you because your work on gender is something that has-- is an issue that has emerged within crypto over the last few years, so it's wonderful to finally see someone seriously tackling the issue and trying to understand how gender and crypto go together or come apart. And so, I thought maybe this is-- I've read your work, your dissertation work for you PhD at Simon Fraser University. And so, I thought maybe we would start with talking a little bit about what you did in your research. You know, who you interviewed and how that kind of process went. And then we'll kind of get into some of the conclusions and findings that you found.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah.
Quinn DuPont: So, with that, could you tell me a little bit about the people and so how you did your observations?
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, absolutely. So, thanks for having me to discuss my dissertation research. It's always really exciting to get a chance to chat more about it outside of academic circles. So, yeah, I recently completed the PhD at SFU's School of Communication, and I conducted a Social Scientific study on women working in the blockchain industry. So, some in crypto specifically and some in other blockchain applications. And I conducted 30 interviews. After conducting 17 participant observations at different types of blockchain meetups and conferences. So, that was really the starting point of getting grounded in the space and observing and having more casual conversations about the space. I just realized, "Wow, there's so much more to understand here. This is really fascinating and contradictory and paradoxical. So, I want to chat more with the women specifically who represent a minority in this space, but a really important group in this space, who are influential, at times overlooked, at times pigeonholed into certain roles." So, I wanted to understand more about that.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, the title of the study ended up being "Decentralizing the Gender-Blind Meritocracy." So, it was an analysis of women's work in blockchain with a communication focus.
Quinn DuPont: Interesting.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Because even the phrase "women in blockchain" was basically so loaded, such a lightning rod of both positive and negative connotations, that I sort of went down that road to start investigating it.
Quinn DuPont: Right, and you talk-- or your research really focused on discourse. Could you maybe say a little bit more about why discourse is important to, particularly if you're trying to understand the position of women in blockchain?
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, exactly, why would a communication scholar be interested in blockchain? It's absolutely tied up in this idea of language and discourse. And so, blockchain was this ideal emerging side to explore new opportunities for both progress and the wicked problems tied up in this complex language dynamic. Because I argue that the language and the attractions, the labels, the in-person practices used in these blockchain cultures are worth studying in and of themselves because these words make worlds. Words do more than reflect realities, they're creating our realities actively. So, you know, we can look back at the rise of the internet, mobile, social media and we can see cases where this lack of diversity and inclusion in the cultures that design and create them have had detrimental effect. So, that's exactly why there's excitement and interest at the emergence of a new technology like blockchain and crypto to really look at those issues and try to figure out how to solve some of them if indeed this technology is going to be as influential as the internet itself has become in our day-to-day lives.
Quinn DuPont: Right, and just to be clear, your approach is really just to try to understand the position of women rather than from the outset suggesting that more women need to be involved in this space. Is that right?
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, exactly. So, I mean, there was the obvious questions that you would see floating around in journalistic takes, which tend to be, you know, they're addressing the issue head on, "Why aren't there more women in blockchain?" Or articles that try to bust the myth that women aren't interested in technology. Those are all important and valid topics, but in terms of my specific area of study, I wanted to dig one layer deeper and more nuanced to ask, "How did these discourses about gender and technology enable and/or constrain women who work in blockchain?" Because they do both depending on the social context. So, I really wanted to pull that apart in context such as these meetups, conferences, hackathons, and workplaces. Because gender and technology are continually informing and shaping one another within these work settings, both formal and informal. So, these networking events and meetups, conferences, they're sort of an informal or out company setting that sort of directly relate, though, to peoples' workplaces. And by workplaces, I mean many of them worked remotely for blockchain companies, and some not for blockchain companies at all. I interviewed some women who were really actively involved in community organizing or advocacy work. But their paid day job might be something different than blockchain or crypto. So, it was really interesting and nuanced to even find these interviewees. It wasn't obvious. So, these meetups were really important entry point for finding participants for the study.
Quinn DuPont: So, let's get into some of that nuance. What is this sort of maybe central idea that you put out in your dissertation here is this idea of these discursive frames. And you identify three discursive frames.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Exactly.
Quinn DuPont: One which is this notion of a gender-blind meritocracy. Another is this sort of lean-in gender consciousness, and then a third, perhaps the most complicated I think, is this idea you've got of this intersectional inclusion, which is kind of an oppositional frame. So, I was wondering if you could maybe just talk us through each one of those frames?
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, absolutely. So, this was all part of my trying to make sense of what I was observing and trying to analyze my interviews. And I realized that some of the contradictions that I was seeing were based on the fact that participants I was speaking with were using-- were code-switching. They were using different frames of reference in different types of language to talk about their experiences in this space. And of course, the most common one, and the one that we're all sort of used to thinking about in terms of gender and technology in society at large is this dominant discourse of a gender-blind meritocracy, right, in which technology is viewed as neutral, objective, revolutionary. Gender in this context is seen as irrelevant or divisive. There's an overt unspeakability about it. And meritocracy is seen not only as the way things should operate, but as the way things do operate. And I cite really interesting studies that refute this, but it's an assumption that most of us absorb just by osmosis. And so, examples of context where you observe this particular discursive frame is the majority of the space at most events or workplaces that are designed by men for everyone.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah, and this has always been the criticism since the get-go of bitcoin is that people would say, "Well, I don't have any problem with any person, but it just turns out that everyone here happens to be a white man," you know, at any given startup or meetup or what have you.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Exactly, exactly. So, I mean, some simple stats to illustrate the-- what you're talking about is that in 2016, women represented less than two percent of bitcoin investors, and that's why you had sort of in its very short history there this male-dominated blockchain sphere started being associated with stereotypes like Crypto Bros, Blockchain Bros, and those early wealthy speculator types.
Quinn DuPont: Mm hm.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: And then after concerted efforts to sort of correct this problem and grow their ranks over the years, I mean, women still now only represent a much smaller percentage of bitcoin investors. I read that it's maybe just a little less than half of crypto investors overall. But I've also read 14 percent of bitcoin specifically recently. And in 2018 study showed that in a hundred blockchain startups, women represented 14 percent of the employees and only seven percent of those were in leadership roles. So, that's only a few years ago, and those numbers were still pretty stark then.
Quinn DuPont: Right, then so there was something that changed a little bit at one point, right? We all of a sudden, yeah, I suppose it was just a few years ago, we started to see this emergence of women-- I don't know how to put it-- maybe trying to claim some space within crypto.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Mm hm, absolutely.
Quinn DuPont: And you talk there about this lean-in kind of notion. Can you tell me a little more about what that frame means?
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, absolutely. So, in response to some of these pretty stark gender disparities and discrimination even at some of these larger events-- and to be clear, participants said that these larger events, these male-dominated events were very useful and important to their careers and to their experiences in blockchain. So, they weren't all bad, but they did contain some really problematic events, activities. And so, in response to this, women did say, you know, "Let's have a by women for women group in blockchain, a conference, a meetup, what have you," because their expertise and their interests were there. And so, this number-- this frame they negotiated, lean-into blockchain discourse, the technology is viewed the same way as in the dominant discourse as revolutionary and neutral. But here, gender matters. And they're saying, "Look, it's just good business. It's better for gaining more market share. It's better for understanding potential customers. It's better to have wider adoption of this technology if more people understand and participate." And it also, of course, is a great opportunity for women to advance their careers individually, collectively, but mostly an individual focus, I found, within this particular frame it was about women furthering their own opportunities and careers. And examples of these types of groups, advocacy groups at conferences that popped up were often educational ones, like the Crypto Chicks is quite a prominent group out of Toronto that runs global education events, hackathons. And then there's a lean-into blockchain meetup in Seattle. And one of my participants told me about it and it's associated, the name is a spinoff of Sheryl Sandberg's popular book, "Lean-In," about women at work. So, that really captured sort of the spirit of this discursive frame that women need to build their expertise, their confidence, their networks, and their opportunities through these types of by women/for women networks, as well as it's like a complement to the larger space. Yet, they still kind of keep women a little bit siloed or in their own lane, so to speak.
Quinn DuPont: Right, right, absolutely, because what seems to have changed was the position on gender, but there's still this idea underneath it all that the technology is just something that's neutral and that--
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Exactly.
Quinn DuPont: -- we just need to focus on inclusion, I suppose, or maybe actually I suppose with your research, you suggest what needs to be focused on-- or what gets focused on with this frame is actually representation.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Exactly. So, it's more of a representation formula, sort of an add women and stir to put it colloquially. So, we want to see more women, we want to see more diversity in terms of let's say at male-dominated conferences, their solution to this would be adding a "women in blockchain panel," right? And this sort of reflects this concept of the invisibility paradox. Where, you know, women in tech cultures are highly visible as women, yet invisible as experts in their particular area of expertise. So, for example, one of my interviewees mentioned a story to me, she said, "I was at this conference in L.A. and they had a "women in blockchain" panel. And the organizer knew that I was passionate about this topic, so he asked me, "Hey, what did you think of the panel?" And I said, "Do you want an honest response?" and he was really expecting a pat on the back, and I said, "How would you feel if you walked into a panel called "short, bald, white dudes in blockchain?"" And the organizer didn't think it was funny. He was expecting a compliment." And she said, "Seriously, these women are all experts in particular areas. Like what was the panel even about? Was it curated by topic? Or was it curated by gender?" So, that is contrast to some of the very real benefits of by women/for women events, where women do feel these tangible infrastructures of support. They feel it's a-- they can increase their skill confidence and opportunity in some safer spaces. But with that said, there are shortcomings to those spaces as well. They certainly are not a uniform or a one-size-fits-all benefit for women in the space. So, just as women have been sidelined in the dominant space, the voices and experiences of women of color, LGBTQ women, disabled women, transgender, and non-binary folks can sometimes be sidelined within these mainstream women in blockchain circles. And some of my participants even described that, you know? Especially women who were in technical roles, who I found had a much more challenging time of finding these meaningful affinity groups where they could really find community and belonging. One of my participants said, "I haven't, bizarrely actually being a lesbian, found women in all these spaces to be particularly useful. Designed by women for women is great, if you want to talk about certain blockchain topics or gendered experiences. But networking events like drinks, I don't get a ton of value at because I'm often the only technical person there. So, talking about the sort of work I do, I might as well be speaking a different language, because I'm in a totally different area." So, this person is trying to find people who are-- people who have expertise in similar areas that she does, as well as places where she doesn't have to constantly defend and describe her expertise. Which takes a ton of extra social effort.
Quinn DuPont: This is the burden that women often have to bear.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Exactly.
Quinn DuPont: To represent the rest of their gender.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Exactly.
Quinn DuPont: So, this makes sense to me that if one focuses only on representation, there's other kinds of representations as you mentioned, LGBTQ types of representations that are going to be necessarily missed. So, this leads to, I think, maybe if we can get into now your third frame. This intersectional inclusion.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yes.
Quinn DuPont: And so, maybe the first thing to describe if you could is some people might not be familiar with this word or this idea of intersectionality. So, maybe you could just mention that and then tell me a little bit more of what this frame means.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, absolutely. So, specifically, this frame it acknowledged that technology is produced in and through specific sociocultural context and therefore the technology itself has only the potential to be revolutionary. And here gender matters, certainly. But only as much as race, class, sexuality, age, disability and all these other aspects of social equity. And that really reflects an intersectional perspective. So, that term was originally coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to analyze racism and sexism in a legal context in the 1990s. But it becomes a really powerful analytical framework for scholars across various fields to examine sort of these structural identities of race, class, gender, sexuality. And how they sort of get baked into different technologies and different context. And so, it's not about sort of adding up all these different parts of our identities as though some people are more oppressed than others if we just analyze their identities. It's more about the fact that these aspects of one's identity comes together in such a way that we can't quite distangle where one ends and one begins in terms of their experience and their positionality in the space. So, an example of a context where you would see this type of intersectional inclusion frame in this space that I witnessed-- and I wasn't even expecting to find this type of context or group-- so, it was really interesting when my participants described them to me. They're a very small but important part of this space where a lot of exciting sort of transformative change has a potential to happen. They're by women for everyone type context and initiatives.
Quinn DuPont: Hm.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: And sometimes men co-lead these spaces as well, right? They would be male allies who recognize the importance and the power of this inclusivity. And so, whether they're men or women in this space, there are people of all genders who are taking a more proactive stance on inclusion. So, it's none of this, "Hey, anyone's welcome here. And it's up to them whether they participate or not." There is more of a proactive stance on inclusion. And one of the interviewees she shared this quote that she said onstage at a blockchain conference to try to challenge the idea that digital code is neutral and objective. She said, "You know, all these dudes are up here saying "Code is law. Code is law." But you know, you're translating some type of language into code, so what language are you speaking? It's his logic. It's his set of ethics. There's no global consensus on these things. So, if you're not looking at the world holistically, your code is actually quite siloed." So, here she's pointing out that one's positionality and world view and identity becomes baked into these blockchain codes. Right?
Quinn DuPont: Mm hm.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: So, yeah, it was just really interesting to see that these groups take a very overt and meaningful approach to try to bring together all sorts of people. Men and women and trans and non-binary folk in the space, who are interested in really addressing overtly. There is not an unspeakability about gender or race. It's actually a very open conversation. And there are groups that specifically are addressing, they're holding up examples of women, women of color, black communities, and the importance of blockchain and crypto specifically in those communities and contexts. And it was really exciting to hear about.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah, I think that's a very rich example, but I suspect many people have a difficult time with this idea because they've inherited this notion that the technology is so objective, and--
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Absolutely.
Quinn DuPont: -- you know, you point to, you talk about techno-feminism or third-wave feminism as it's very much more this idea that the technology itself is constructed. Is that the way that we should-- is that where we should sort of start our analysis from and then move towards inclusion? Is that the answer here?
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, it's exactly. It is such a taken for granted concept that technology is neutral and that it's a tool and that how people use it for positive or negative ends, that's really where difference comes into play. But absolutely. As technology, as a scholar of technology in society, we absolutely refute that claim and say, "Technologies are never just neutral. They aren't developed in a vacuum," right? They're developed by people in certain context for certain people in certain context. And what's really cool and what I have sort of traced over ten/fifteen years of research in this field, it's sort of looking at how emerging technologies shape people's everyday lives. But also, the interesting and unexpected ways that people shape these technologies. So, yeah, I do look at the technology as a starting point. I would look at both who's designing it, in what context, for what end? And then also these unexpected ways that people take up and use and shape and morph technologies in their use, right?
Quinn DuPont: Yeah, because--
Julie Frizzo-Barker: And I warn, it really does come back to-- this is why I was looking at workplaces and gender and language, right? You're taking it right back several layers to those seemingly small and inconsequential aspects. Like some of my participants talked about how when they became more aware of gender inclusion and when they started more proactively supporting it in their blockchain companies, they went right back to basic steps like revising their job ads. Because they realized that how they were talking about their work actually affected who they were recruiting and what type of team they were putting together. So, for example, one person shared a story and said, "We used to say-- we used to have in our job ads, "If you're a coding ninja, come join us. We have Beer O'Clock, we have ping-pong tables, and all the traditional tech stuff." Now they've changed their job ads to say, "We have flexible working arrangements. We have paid time off to volunteer in your community." And she said, "You know, this could be reading to your kids kindergarten class. This appeals to people of any gender. So, here we're actively building a work culture that supports the type of people that we're looking for as opposed to this crush the enemy kind of vibe," she said. "We're looking for-- to actually from the very basic building blocks of building the culture before we think about building the technology. Because we understand how deeply intertwined, they are."
Quinn DuPont: So, I think those are really wonderfully rich examples. And I wanted to get your opinion on this-- there's these interesting changes, so I've been studying crypto for like a decade now, and when I was writing my book, I really wanted to speak with women and it was really difficult, just even just five years ago.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Mm hm, mm hm.
Quinn DuPont: But recently, as you talked about, there's been this shift and we see a lot more women involved. There was a Pew Report from just last year that pegged the number for people who have crypto usage at 22 percent for men and 10 percent for women. But which I think is of course a positive, right? Women are getting into the space and that this is, you know, they have opportunities for wealth and everything that's wonderful about the crypto world. Similarly, the racial dynamics are changing as well. The Pew Report actually puts white people as a minority, which I thought was rather surprising--
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Interesting.
Quinn DuPont: --for usage. And so, but this immediately brings to mind for me the strange situation where I start worry about exploitation. I worry that as there's especially poorer people start to get involved in this space, I worry that-- to not be paternalistic, but there is that possibility of exploitation. Do you have any thoughts on-- did you see examples of this, or anything like this coming through your research?
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, a couple things come to mind in terms of exploitation. I can think of one example where women did speak about getting into the space and feeling like, "Oh, actually the thing that I thought was going to be a wonderful opportunity for changing my career or money-making has actually turned into a complete burnout situation in terms of my time, because I am now connected to working with, in communication with, people globally in the crypto space in terms of buying, selling, trading 24/7 watching markets." And they said, "Not only did I lose money while I was trying to start understanding the space, but I lost basically tons of time, my relationships, because of basically trying to come up in the space and get acquainted in the space." So, it's not as though everyone who joins the space is going to have an easy and fun time and success. And there's also, at a more structural level in terms of exploitation and burnout, we do see these wonderful signs of intersectional inclusion. But again, the people who are working to develop and support these types of communities, they're all doing it on top of the core work that they're trained to do and excited to do in the space, whether it's technical, business-wise, financial, they have these areas of expertise, but they're having to layer this gender advocacy on top of. So, there's a risk of personal burnout for folks who are promoting this counter cultural value of intersectional inclusion. I mean, you have a few people who begin to speak on the topic organize events on the topic. And all of a sudden, they have hundreds of requests for support from mentoring, for networking, and basically, they're not able to-- like there just isn't a critical mass there to support sort of the needs of this up-and-coming network, right? And there's no question that it's growing and even some of the people who I spoke to, sort of the very first women in blockchain conferences, they're thrilled that there are now a whole proliferation of women in blockchain groups, podcasts, social media. Just recently there is a group, I think it's called EFF, or My BFF, and it's a group of over 50 influential women, including celebrities who are talking about Web3 blockchain and crypto. Sort of that socializing aspect of the technology's diffusion and adoption into the mainstream, right?
Quinn DuPont: Mm hm.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: So, I think there is a concerted effort to sort of grow the ranks. But certainly, there's going to be exploitation, backlash. I mean, even some of the participants in my study, they're so used to thinking about the technology this way that they have questioned themselves. You know, in many cases, it took 45 minutes of the one-hour interview for them to even sort of shift into a space of being comfortable mentioning situations where they definitely had seen and experienced discrimination, microaggressions, exploitation because the thing that you're supposed to do, the thing that we all do, consciously or unconsciously, is we think about how to make the best of a great opportunity that we find ourselves in, right? Which, in this case is to be an early adopter, to be part of a space no matter what the demographics look like. In fact, it's seen as an advantage, right, in some of these situations to be one of the few women in the room.
Quinn DuPont: Certainly, certainly.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Yeah, yep. It's complicated, for sure.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah, and that's interesting to hear that while there is a real exciting change happening that we need to be cognizant of the potential risks and downsides. And I think that just goes to say all the more reason for thinking about the question of gender from an intersectional perspective and by necessity of course that brings it beyond even just gender, but I think that makes your research really, really important. So, with that, thank you very much, Julie. It's been wonderful speaking with you about your exciting research.
Julie Frizzo-Barker: Thanks so much, Quinn. Look forward to keeping in touch.
Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Julie Frizzo-Barker. To learn about the IEEE Blockchain Initiative, please visit our web portal at blockchain.ieee.org