Q&A  | 

Elena Sinelnikova

“In some countries, it is within the law to only accept male candidates in a recruitment process.”

Tags: 'diversity' 'lack of diversity'

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Elena Sinelnikova is the co-founder and CEO of "CryptoChicks", a women only educational not-profit community for BlockChain and AI. Its objective is that the number of women working in blockchain and artificial intelligence grow through hackathons, learning workshops, conferences, etcetera. The community was born in Toronto in 2017 and has already expanded to countries around the world.

What do we mean when we talk about diversity or lack of it?

Diversity means you include people into your project from different backgrounds, nationalities and genders. And lack of diversity, of course, is a lack of inclusion.

When we started working on closing the diversity gap, to bring more women into blockchain technology, we found that women had a lack of knowledge in this area. Lack of knowledge is actually the outcome of this lack of diversity. When they learned about the industry, they still felt intimidated because it’s male dominated.

There are differences between how women and men approach certain problems. Probably one of the reasons why there are less women in this space is because women are just not sure that they’re a good fit, that they’re good enough. It’s quite common that women feel the need to be perfect, to be 100% sure, before they go for the Hackathon or apply for a job. 

Why are computers then seen as a ‘boy's thing’ in and why do women feel unwelcome in the tech world?

Generally, computers may be seen as a boys thing, but for some women it’s not true. I think the issue stems from childhood. We know that the majority of boys play with toy cars and have all the technical stuff while girls play with dolls. But there are lots of girls, like me, who are more interested in what the dolls are made of, how they are assembled and why they can walk and talk: What is it inside them that makes them do that? So even though it’s very common to see more boys playing with cars or with computers, there are plenty of girls that are very technology savvy as well, especially in this era where everyone now has a computer or a smartphone. We cannot say anymore that these devices are only for boys. 

What key values or attributes would you say women can bring to the table?

If I speak about the blockchain industry, there is no difference between men and women. It depends on the person we’re talking about. Some people can bring their background, their culture, their unique knowledge, attitude and vision. If we’re talking about blockchain technology it seems very technical, as if only the cryptographers and certain people can be involved. But this is completely untrue.

The crypto economy has to make blockchains self-sustainable without any human interaction.

They made it an easy system so that once Bitcoin or Ethereum were designed and developed they can live without human interaction forever. It’s self-regulated, self-sustained. That’s the beauty of it. Why can’t women design the same thing? It’s not a deep technical cryptographic thing that you need to know. Not at all. There are lots of areas in this industry that people without a deep technical knowledge can contribute to.

How can we encourage women to believe that technology is an area in which they can succeed?

Again, just giving them a wider perspective and knowledge about this industry. In our Hackathons we provide different competition tracks. They come up with the business ideas, they develop it, they envision what this minimal viable product will look like, which customers they are going to serve, which valleys they are going to provide, how are they going to raise money? These become completely different tasks, not just focused on technology. Just giving this perspective to women helps them a lot in this industry, because it is a young industry, there are lots of potential and lots of opportunities. All the women that have been involved in our hackathons have changed their lives completely. Being in this industry and learning about this technology open doors to the future, because it is the future. 

When you meet with men in the tech industry, do you think some of them doubt that women can succeed in having to go work?

In my practice, I haven’t experienced it here in Canada. I might have experienced it a little bit when I lived back in Russia, I think that this is completely cultural thing, right? When I studied in a university in Russia we had teachers that were saying: “You don’t really need to know this subject because well, to be honest, you were going to stay home”. That was the kind of attitude from men that I experienced. And at the same time, I remember that when I was looking for a job, in the job descriptions they were saying ‘we only accept males from ages 22 to 27.’ But here in Canada, once I moved into the blockchain industry, I have never seen that the guys would be opposed.

If women come into this industry and start learning blockchain they will see that everybody is very welcoming. In fact, we are getting calls from blockchain companies all the time, saying “we would like to hire women, because we would like to have more debate, more diversity etc”. So there is obviously need for women in the industry and men are very open to the idea.

During our Hackathons as well, the majority of the mentors that we have are men, because we need experts and there were no women in the industry two years ago. We have an incubation mentorship program that allows girls to develop their businesses and the majority of our mentors are men, helping the girls free of charge. So yeah, they are very welcoming in the industry, I would say.

Have you witnessed sexism when it comes to recruitment or do you think this has been reversed by now?

I don’t think so, not in Canada for sure. I didn’t experience that at the time I was hired. When we just immigrated to Canada with my husband, I found a job faster than him, even though we had the same certifications, same qualifications, same everything. 

According to a recent study (April 2019) published by the research group “AI Now” (AI Now Institute) of the University of New York, we are facing a serious crisis of diversity (gender, but also race) of those who work in fields such as Artificial Intelligence. How can we encourage more diversity in computer science and engineering on an educational level?

So first of all, diversity is great for a company. The most diverse teams are most successful. This is obvious, right? So when we have different backgrounds, different experiences, different ages, we can create more value for more people. So it is basically just a question of educating company leaders about this, about the research on this, and at the same sign educating people about different industries. For example, when we talk about blockchain the majority of the people think, “Oh, this is about Bitcoin which is, you know, crime related or something.” Again, this is not completely true, because there’s a side to this technology that’s really, game changing. We need to talk about it more and write articles and educate people. And that’s what we’re trying to do, to bring knowledge to the general public, to somebody who has never been involved in it

 

In fact, 80% of university professors specialized in AI are men and companies such as Facebook and Google have only 15 and 10% women respectively in their AI teams. What is being done, if anything, to tackle this issue on a professional level?

This is very related to the perception that boys are good with computers and that maybe girls are not as interested. But there are a lot of other big elements involved. In the blockchain industry, when we first started we only had 5% women. Next year it was 10%. This year it’s 16%. So the numbers are growing. As the technology is developing and more people are aware, more people are getting involved. 

Can you tell us about CryptoChicks. What you do and why you do it?

We founded this nonprofit organization called CryptoChicks, to involve more women in blockchain and AI technology. We sometimes came to a conference and were the only ones in the room. Statistically the number of women in blockchain technology has increased. I remember 50 women joined the very first meetup, which was a big turnout for us. It meant that there were women interested in learning and when we provided them with the opportunity to learn it in a female only environment, there was a lot of interest. So we thought that maybe it was connected because when you are intimidated to ask questions in a male environment, this intimidation goes away when you are in female only environment.

We have Hackathons everywhere in the world. We’ve had some messages from men saying, “Oh, you’re excluding men.” But we, of course, are not. We always say, if you would like to help, please help. But in terms of the coding and business competition, we would like to keep it for women only.

Once they go and work on their own or in companies, they will be the part of diverse teams, but we need to give them a head start in this environment, to make sure they are comfortable and then let them choose their own path.

Could you tell us what a bit how are you using happy times to support more women in AI and blockchain?

A Hackathon is a friendly competition. So initially the term “hackathon” derives from the word hacker or a very advanced coder. In fact, our hackathons are not only about coding. 

So far we have held Hackathons in Toronto, New York, NASA, in the Bahamas. We have also held them in Pakistan and Australia, and now we have started working with other countries such as Kenya, Turkey, Italy etc.

Why is the world of cryptocurrencies so opaque? What are the implications?

I think the word scares people. We need to look a little bit deeper and ask why this is happening. At the beginning Bitcoin was portrayed as a type of technology that could be used for the drugs trade to hide money and transfer electronically, but who portrayed it like this? We always need to ask ourselves, who benefits from statements like that? There are a lot of people in the government who are, of course, maybe averse to these new technologies because of the risk of losing control. 

How do you think we can create more understanding when it comes to the language around computer science?

When people are very deeply involved in technology, they start speaking slang language that nobody else understands. Sometimes they don’t even know it. We all need to make an effort to dumb down our language to the level of a five-year-old or your grandmother. Everything has to be very clear and understandable. We must not be afraid to ask questions. 

What is the key to building a more equitable and inclusive digital future?

The key to building a more equitable and inclusive digital future would be education and making technology available for everybody. All this information and education has to go mainstream and become available for all ages, different genders, and across all countries. We are 50 chicks here. We make an effort to involve more countries and more people. But it needs to become mainstream, to be taught in the schools and colleges.