Packing for California was, for the most part, easy. If I couldn’t wear it in 100-degree heat or to my big tech internship, it went into storage. With near mechanical precision, I divided my wardrobe into “leave” and “take” piles.
But there was one item that stumped me. Six months ago, my friend sent me a tweet with a picture of a t-shirt that read “Disgraced founder of Theranos Elizabeth Holmes” — a shirt I now hold in question. I bought it on a whim in the middle of class after realizing I had saved my credit card information to Etsy. I thought it was ironic, perhaps something to differentiate me from my peers. “I’m not like other people in tech,” the shirt would say. “I can critique Holmes and start-up culture.”
Elizabeth Holmes, with her faux deep voice, signature black turtleneck and inexplicable charisma, was an enigma even before her crimes were discovered. She’s the subject of best-selling books, award winning journalism and even a Hulu miniseries. At the age of 19, Holmes dropped out of Stanford to start what would become Theranos, a biotechnology company that claimed it could perform a suite of tests with just one drop of blood. Later, an investigation into the company revealed the blood testing technology didn’t actually work — but not before Holmes had raised over $700 billion in venture capital and defrauded countless investors including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, future Trump Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the DeVos family, an ex-Wells Fargo chairman and two former U.S. senators.
In a highly publicized trial, Holmes was found guilty on January 3 of three counts of wire fraud and one count of intent to commit wire fraud. As former Theranos patients expressed outrage at the jury’s failure to find Holmes guilty of defrauding patients, a squad of internet cheerleaders rooted for their favorite “femme fatale.” Some fans even took it upon themselves to wait outside the courthouse, eager to catch a glimpse of their hero.
She raised millions of dollars on lies. She built a multi-billion dollar company on impossible claims and shoddy science. She hurt innocent patients. She’s a girlboss, the embodiment of women in tech.
Commentators describe Holmes’s deception and fall from grace as being spectacular, even exceptional. It certainly is — Holmes fooled some of the brightest minds in tech, medicine and finance and obtained a net worth of over $4.5 billion before losing it all. But there’s also something about it that’s very reminiscent. If you look closely, it’s part of a story we’ve seen before. Holmes is women in tech programs taken to their natural conclusion. She is the most extreme embodiment of a culture that pushes women to emulate toxic, male-dominated hacker culture and pursue arbitrary markers of success without meaningfully challenging — or, to use a favorite term of the tech industry, disrupting — the status quo.
Initially, I set the Elizabeth Holmes T-shirt into the “maybe pile,” along with a collection of skirts that were probably too short to wear to my corporate internship, sweatshirts that were probably too warm for the California heat and shoes that were probably too impractical to walk to the train station in. But it didn’t feel like it belonged there — there was nothing functionally wrong with sporting “disgraced founder of Theranos Elizabeth Holmes” in the office. Rather, it clashed with the ethos of Silicon Valley. I saw the T-shirt as ironic, as tongue-in-cheek. I knew I’d very well encounter a number of former Theranos employees in the Bay Area, but my real hesitation was that I doubted that they would see the humor in it; I doubted that they would also consider Holmes a toxic girlboss icon.
The girlbossification of Elizabeth Holmes, I think, can best be attributed to how depraved and bereft of meaning Theranos’s downfall felt. Holmes came out of the court case relatively unscathed and the questionable business practices she engaged in still run abound in the start-up world. It’s so absurd that it demands parody. Turning Theranos and Holmes into a joke, into a cultural moment, is the easiest way to acknowledge her rise and fall without really reckoning with the factors that produced it. And Holmes’s adoring, pseudo-ironic fans certainly deliver.
At the same time that we were collectively rebranding Holmes, we began using the same terms to describe women in tech initiatives. Organizations like GirlTechBoss emerged, predicting women’s imminent takeover of big tech and praising the cult of the “female founder” — a Holmes-like figure who embodies the role of the brilliant, male, visionary founder with a feminine twist. It all feels reminiscent of early 2000s consumer feminism, a perverse interpretation of women’s empowerment that focuses on catchy slogans and commodifiable T-shirts.
The same hollowness that demanded the girlbossification of Elizabeth Holmes demands the girlbossification of women in tech.
First, women in tech programs encourage women to pursue masculine roles — the founder, the hacker, etc. — rather than challenging the existence of those roles. Feminist scholars have long critiqued the mainstream movement for pushing women to gain access to patriarchal institutions at the expense of “look(ing) at the big picture: a social structure that is male-centered, male-identified, and male-dominated, and which valorizes qualities narrowly defined as male.” Mary Becker, legal scholar and University of Chicago professor, argues that mainstream schools of feminism cannot challenge these structures because they “are empty at their core, offering no values inconsistent with patriarchal values.” Instead of imagining what technology would look like if it was built on feminist values — intersectionality, acknowledging context and reconsidering binaries, to name a few — or advocating for the creation of its own culture and technological ethos, women in tech programs tell women to become the toxic founder.
No one did this better than Elizabeth Holmes. Her signature black turtleneck and deep voice were a nod to Apple founder Steve Jobs. She idolized him so much that she went as far as to hire the same advertising and branding agencies Jobs had used in the early days of Apple. On paper, Holmes had done the thing every women in tech program told her to do, albeit in a more literal sense.
Furthermore, women in tech programs focus on shallow metrics of success. The number of women in tech has steadily increased over the years, but women still make up just 25% of employees in technical roles. On the surface, it looks like things are improving. Still, it’s worth considering these statistics in light of the fact that 41% of women who work in tech report being sexually harassed at work, are less likely to be promoted and are leaving the field at high rates. These flashy statistics about increased gender diversity in big tech are touted by executives, HR representatives and employees, but they also obscure a more complex reality. It’s much easier and much less contentious to maintain a steady 0.5% year-over-year increase in the number of female employees than confront a male-dominated workplace culture or eliminate gender bias from hiring and promotion decisions.
Big tech’s emphasis on simple, contextless statistics is a very Theranos-esque approach to gender equality. Holmes went to great lengths to maintain outside appearances while her company struggled to design the blood typing technology it had promised investors, customers and patients alike. Indeed, keeping up appearances was exactly what allowed Holmes’s charade to go on for so long. When everything is perfect on the outside, when all the so-called telltale markers of success are present, there’s no need to dig any deeper.
Theranos’s actions follow an established line of thinking in women in tech programs: focus on empty metrics of success, flaunt those to the outside world and keep the real issues internal (Are there more women on your team than guys named Dave? Has someone on Etsy made merchandise featuring your highest-ranking female executive? If so, you’ve met your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion goals for this quarter). When investors, new hires or reporters ask about gender diversity, executives can proudly point to a few positively-trending numbers, an inactive Slack channel for female employees and a women’s history month newsletter blatantly copied from a Canva template.
Worst of all, the do-it-yourself neoliberal spirit of women in tech programs encourages women to put their heads down and take it. When women encounter systemic issues, they’re taught to attribute them to personal failures rather than institutional factors. It’s not that the workplace culture has normalized sexist jokes, it’s that she doesn’t get their sense of humor. It’s not that she’s being passed up for a promotion, it’s that she’s not cut out for leadership.
Women in tech programs are, as the name implies, all about the women. But what about the culture, what about the institution? These programs feel so unsatisfying, so mockable and girlbossifiable, because their worldview is so hollow. In recent years, many feminist scholars have rejected neoliberal feminism and all the narratives of self-sufficiency, individual responsibility and personal choice that come with it. Women in tech programs, it seems, haven’t caught up.
In the end, my Elizabeth Holmes T-shirt went into storage. I couldn’t convince myself the joke would land in Silicon Valley and preferred not to have to explain it. Still, I found myself imagining alternative interpretations of the T-shirt. At her trial, Holmes’s defense argued that she wasn’t really lying to investors about Theranos’s technological capabilities. Holmes, they claimed, was a founder who believed in her company. And anyway, all founders exaggerate to make their company look better. Some of her supporters have pointed out that her charges related to lying to investors are standard practice in Silicon Valley. To them, Holmes, although not entirely innocent, was unfairly crucified and sacrificed for daring to be a high-profile female founder. Of course, these supporters make no mention of the harm Holmes did to patients seeking affordable health care. They never do.
But when you buy into this interpretation, and when you spend your whole career immersed in women in tech programs — taught to embody patriarchal roles and embrace hollow metrics of individual success above all else — then it’s not too hard to empathize with Holmes. It’s not too hard to disregard the patients and their pain and suffering. It’s not too hard to see Holmes as an icon for women in tech, unjustly cast out of Silicon Valley for doing what they’ve always dared women to do.
Statement Columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.