Bitcoin's Biggest Winners—or Losers—Are Likely to Be Men

A thought experiment about risk-taking, equity, and gender.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

After a long struggle for equality, it’s no longer controversial in the United States that women are owed equal rights, equal dignity, equal protection of the law, and the same economic opportunities as men. Yet disagreements remain about what that means in practice and how far Americans are from realizing that vision.

Lately, I’ve been pondering cryptocurrencies as a case study. No one is quite sure if today’s investors in Bitcoin or Ethereum or Iota will grow rich or lose everything. And that veil of ignorance is useful for thinking through a fraught question: Will it be unjust if there is a significant gender imbalance in investor losses or gains?

That outcome is almost certain.

“Data on who holds the anonymous currencies are hard to find,” Hannah Kuchler explains in the Financial Times, “but Uphold, a virtual currency wallet service that does background checks on its users, says 75 percent are men, while Coin Dance, which tracks statistics on the bitcoin community, found 97 percent of engagement was from men.”

Anne Gaviola of CBC News concurs. “Figuring out exactly who is putting money into this kind of asset is difficult because part of the attraction of investing in the crypto realm is the assurance of anonymity,” she writes. “But survey after survey backs up what the anecdotal evidence suggests—women are underrepresented. Google Analytics results put the divide at 96.57 per cent men to 3.43 per cent women.”

Simply put, many more men are buying crypto than women. The combined market capitalization of all the currencies appears to exceed 300 billion dollars. And due to their greater participation in this extremely volatile and thus highly risky realm, men will likely wind up squandering hundreds of billions of dollars more than women—or else, perhaps, enjoying hundreds of billions in additional wealth.

Our uncertainty about the outcome of this natural experiment presents an opportunity to probe questions of risk-taking, gender, and equity behind a veil of ignorance.

If present trends persist and men in aggregate choose to risk much more than women, will an aggregate difference in gains or losses in this realm be just or unjust? Would it change your answer if cryptocurrencies upended the financial system and the balance of wealth rather than constituting a relatively small portion of it?

Does it matter if risk-taking is driven by nature or nurture or both?

And if you’re uncomfortable with the unequal outcomes on the horizon, is there an aspect of policy or socialization you’d change that could alter the future in some way?

I’d love to air varying perspectives sent to (specify if I should publish your name or not). And I have three additional thoughts to inform responses:

  1. This is a thought experiment about people who are investing money in cryptocurrencies—something that can be accomplished online in 10 minutes with nothing but a credit card and a Coinbase account—as distinct from earning money as an entrepreneur in the crypto industry, where there is documented evidence of a gendered culture that imposes higher barriers to entry on women. Let’s set aside gains to industry insiders as a distinct question.
  2. Gender differences in socialization, disposable income, and other factors presumably affect investment in cryptocurrencies to one degree or another. Respondents are welcome to point out such factors, but I’d be additionally interested if they think there are any crypto gains or losses not explained by these factors.
  3. Emails articulating why you have or haven’t invested in cryptocurrency, or how you’ve thought about the question, are also welcome as part of this discussion. Has gender played any role in your decision about whether to buy or not?

Whatever happens next to cryptocurrencies, it’s hard to see how the outcome will be equitable. Hopefully the exercise of thinking all of this through can help folks on all sides of related questions—and undecided, curious people like me—to clarify their own views, to understand others, and to think through outcomes that are likely in our future.