What Can Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes Teach Us About Feminism

What Can Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes Teach Us About Feminism?

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, critics and feminists are reflecting on the story of the now infamous CEO of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes. The focus of the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood In Silicon Valley, Holmes captivated the imaginations and tapped into the greed and hubris of the (mostly male) investor class. She raised over $600 million and took her investors for a ride that ended in disgrace. Her failed product—a fast, cheap, comprehensive blood test using only a finger prick rather than a blood draw—would have been miraculous if it had worked. But it didn’t, and she knew it. She hid its flaws and is now facing federal fraud charges. Her very public rise and fall have some calling her a feminist anti-hero.

Rolling Stone’s EJ Dickson argues that Holmes, whom she labels a “Toxic Ladyboss,” is the product of “Lean In” feminism. Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book urged women to be ambitious,  raise their hands at work and expect more from their spouses. Dickson and others argue that Sandberg promoted a brand of pseudo-feminism that failed to address issues of race and class and left the masculine corporate model intact. However, Holmes’ leadership style, characterized by mismanagement, secrecy, deception and paranoia (dressed up in black turtlenecks and an adopted baritone voice), had little to do with feminism. She rose and fell thanks to Silicon Valley’s predilection for charismatic leaders and its willingness to believe that someone with zero experience and expertise in biology and engineering could swoop in and solve a medical problem that the experts had been working on for years. Sounds a lot like some Americans’ belief that hyper-individualist Trump could solve trade, North Korea and healthcare. (Who knew they were so complicated?)

Ultimately, Elizabeth Holmes story doesn’t have a lot to tell us about feminism because it is not primarily a feminist narrative. Yes, the fact that Holmes is a woman no doubt played a role in her story: it is harder for women to convince venture capitalists and others of the worthiness of their ideas. Her whiteness and wealthy connections helped her overcome this hurdle. Then, once she acquired critical sponsorship and funding, the fact that she was a young woman undoubtedly helped create Elizabeth Holmes as a media darling. But Holmes was not a feminist; she was first and foremost a ruthless individualist and a con artist. She relied on the language of gender when it suited her, but set out to emulate Steve Jobs and amass as much personal power as possible. As Dickson notes, “Holmes failed to realize that cloaking yourself in feminism only works if you actively advocate for women other than yourself.”

Dickson goes on to link so-called lean in feminism to the kerfuffle surrounding presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar’s widely reported mistreatment of her staff. She misconstrues Jennifer Palmieri’s observation in Politico that we hold men to a different standard from women as a defense of the underlying bad behavior. But the Klobuchar example is a red herring. First, the Senator from Minnesota differs from Holmes in that she actually has worked to advance policies in support of all women. But more importantly, Palmieri does not argue that it is okay to treat your staff poorly. Her point is about media bias: that when men do it, they are called “demanding” and “hard-charging,” while women are labeled “abusive” or “toxic.” The remedy is not to stop calling out the behavior of women. At its best, feminism, gender parity and fairness are not about holding women to lower standards, but about holding everyone—women and men—to a high standard of behavior. Shame on all of us and on the press if we fail to expect basic decency from powerful men, but let’s not give women a pass just because we aren’t tough enough on men.

Klobuchar has vowed that she will be a better boss, and I’d like to see her follow that up by getting some help—engage her team to improve their working conditions and culture, and maybe even work with an executive coach to gather feedback and help improve her self-awareness. It would be good to see some of those “hard-charging” men do the same. They would all do well to look to the example of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who is not just advocating for progressive policies but is also putting her own budget where her mouth is by paying all her staffers a living wage. This kind of approach really does help create opportunities for a diverse staff. I’m reminded of a story in Becoming in which Michelle Obama’s recounts her experience being offered for a job with a non-profit at a salary so low that only someone who was independently wealthy could have afforded to accept. The well-meaning leaders of the organization were clueless about the economic challenges facing people outside of their socio-economic class. Obama was bold enough to be transparent about her financial needs, which included a hefty monthly student loan payment, and the non-profit upped the salary so that she could join. That’s the kind of leaning in that helps to change the workplace in ways that benefit not just privileged white women.

And what of Elizabeth Holmes? She is not an example of “lean in feminism” or any other kind of feminism. Her story tells us more about the toxic myth of individualism, greed and hubris than it does about women in leadership.