Can you stand yet more commentary on Elizabeth Holmes, fraudster supreme and founder-CEO of the criminal enterprise masquerading as a biotech firm, Theranos?
Let’s hope so because it is worth considering what the rise and fall of this infamous figure reveals about the cult of the professional woman that American feminism has created. There are certain aspects of the Holmes story that reveal the incoherence of the idea of white-collar feminism and its moral and intellectual bankruptcy.
Let’s start with the idea that some prominent women are advancing, which boils down to the quite weird argument that even though Holmes may have done some undesirable things (these partisans tend to gloss over minor details such as knowingly selling faulty devices that resulted in providing erroneous lab test results to pregnant women and cancer patients, among others), she is being unfairly prosecuted due to, naturally, sexism.
The proponents of this view include Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit, (who does not appear to be all that fond of men given that they were not thrilled with her attempt to emasculate the site) who wrote a New York Times opinion piece entitled “The Sexism That Led to the Elizabeth Holmes Trial.”
The gist of this idea is that you should never prosecute women if there are men out there somewhere who have not been. Never mind the fact that Holmes, unlike most male tech figures, was endangering people’s lives. The men she is sometimes compared to, for the most part, were not given to parading around in a lab coat (which Holmes sometimes donned to look medical) while telling lies about a biomedical device that did not work. It is embarrassment to all women to argue that Holmes is a victim of the patriarchy. It won’t wash, Ms. Pao.
Speaking of the patriarchy, Holmes is the creation of it as well as a master manipulator of it and beneficiary of it at an epic scale, not its victim. Where does Pao think Holmes got the cascades of money that kept Theranos running despite the mounting evidence that it could not deliver on the biomedical revolution Holmes kept touting? It came from greedy, prominent, establishment uber males such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Jim Mattis—and serial sexual harasser Bill Clinton who gushed very publicly over Holmes in 2015. These men were eager for money and besotted with Holmes, who played them like a song—not exactly the story feminists like to tell of female accomplishment based on anything but raw sex appeal and financial chicanery. She also got help from her dad, a former Enron (figures!) executive. Elizabeth Holmes became famous because of men—and, later on, lefty women in the media and feminist power circles who refused to note that salient fact.
Another aspect of Holmes’ ascent to the top of the tech world (even though her supposed breakthrough was in the field of biomedicine) that reveals the weaknesses in the whole feminist project is that Holmes modeled herself not on female scientists and technologists but on Steve Jobs, even to the extent of dressing like him in the famous black turtlenecks.
So, here we have people like Pao arguing that Holmes is a victim of sexism even while Holmes mimicked powerful men and refused to listen to the warning of the one female scientist she seems to have consulted about her plans for Theranos, Stanford professor Phyllis Gardner, that Holmes lacked any understanding of basic biophysics and drug delivery systems. Refusing to listen to the wise counsel of Gardner, Holmes, the supposed victim of sexism, thereupon found a ready champion in her advisor and dean at the School of Engineering, Channing Robertson—whose reputation she managed to destroy in the ensuing debacle.
Thus, the whole concept that so many feminists push of young women needing caring female mentors seems to work only if the mentor is willing to sign off on goofy, dangerous ideas of the mentee. Gardner, an expert in her field, was not going to play that game and early on spoke out against Holmes.
Holmes was a not a victim of sexism but a victim of her own unwillingness to listen to women who possessed the expertise that Holmes was unwilling to take the time to acquire. The same thing happened at Theranos when women in lab positions and in its financial operations warned Holmes about looming disaster on all fronts.
Moreover, it is well documented that this supposed victim of the patriarchy bullied male and female employees alike, notably the courageous Tyler Shultz, who were simply telling the truth about fraud and manifestations of unworkable technology that they were witnessing on a daily basis. Even now, some deluded women perversely regard the cruelty that Holmes inflicted on her underlings as somehow indicative of her extraordinary management skills. They call her “girl boss” and some even ape her former “I am so busy being a tycoon, that I can’t be bothered to go to the salon” hairstyle—which she has now softened to make her look benign and persecuted.
And on the matter of expertise, let’s talk a bit about how the feminist movement tends to value blue-ribbon, academic credentials rather than actual accomplishment. Holmes famously dropped out of Stanford (in dropping out of a prestigious institution she was again aping men such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and not staying in to get advanced degrees—as Gardner did), but profited from possessing the cachet of being associated with it, even though she was there only a few months.
And one would note that Holmes’ spot at Stanford could have gone to a woman who might have gone to a career of distinction like Gardner’s. Holmes, who got into Stanford and then capitalized on the prestige of having once attended it and who refused to listen to a female professor who foresaw the fiasco that was to come and relied instead on the mentoring and backing of a noted male professor cannot be creditably portrayed as a victim of sexism. But Pao tried.
It is significant that few feminist voices are lauding Gardner for her competence and achievements, but instead are bemoaning the supposed double standard of American society for taking down Elizabeth Holmes contending that if she had been a man, she would not have been treated so harshly. The reality is quite the opposite. If a man had tried to peddle the shoddy device that was at the heart of Theranos, in all likelihood he would have gotten nowhere. He certainly would not have appeared on the cover of Fortune and glamour magazines the way Holmes did.
Holmes famously spoke of her dedication to her work. She certainly did work long hours. Perpetrating a massive fraud, deceiving investors, addressing adoring, gullible audiences, harassing and spying on employees, sweet-talking tech and business reporters (many of whom were, yes indeed, male and who hyped the image of Holmes as a game-changing innovator—so much for the vast sexist anti-Holmes conspiracy we keep hearing about from people like Pao) and traducing the few who see through your web of deceit do eat one up one’s time.
Oh and lest we forget, Holmes who was praised to the skies by those eager to tell the tale of Holmes the dynamic, charismatic, pioneering female founder of a billion-dollar bonanza later seemed to be toying with defense strategies that argued that Holmes a) suffered from some kind of mental disorder that prevented her from distinguishing right from wrong b) was an abused woman at the hands of the man she herself hired and whom she used as her hatchet man to browbeat truth-telling employees into submission, Theranos chief operating officer and president, Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani (the defense seems, wisely, to have dropped that idea given that there was too much evidence that Holmes and Balwani worked hand in glove until things fell apart at the company) c) was a well-intentioned, idealistic young woman who simply made a few mistakes and that is just the way of things in business sometimes or d) Holmes really did not have any idea of what was happening at the company from very early on and was just its public face. None of these defenses play into Pao’s evil all-powerful patriarchy narrative very well and certainly don’t make women in tech or biomedical startups look very good. Way to go, Ms. Holmes!
The Holmes story helpfully illustrates the incoherence of the feminist project. On the one hand, feminists say that there aren’t enough women in tech and point to the hard work and long hours that their one-time heroines like Holmes supposedly put in and then, after her downfall, bleat that now that she is a mother it would be cruel to imprison her because she is no longer a hard-driving, ruthless executive and entrepreneur and that we all need to be in favor of avoiding incarcerating mothers of young children—even if many of the victims of Theranos were, you know, innocent women with serious medical conditions and women living in fear of miscarriages.
And getting back to the matter of the patriarchy. Into whose arms did the great feminist heroine Elizabeth Holmes fling herself once Theranos imploded and she was looking at many years in the pokey? Why, an heir to a fortune William "Billy" Evans—whose MIT ring Holmes likes to be seen sporting (more expertise by association—if you can’t be bothered to graduate from a top-tier university, marry someone who managed to). Sooo, the victim of the great sexist conspiracy has now married the embodiment of the patriarchy and has produced, on cue, a son and heir to said plutocrat and they are all living (for now) in palatial surroundings.
There you have the story of tech feminism. Beware media darlings and feminist apologists for them when they fall from grace.