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How ‘Lean In’ Feminism Created Elizabeth Holmes and the Toxic Ladyboss

The Theranos founder’s specific brand of corporate feminism sets an example for us all

Theranos Founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes at Stanford University April 17, 2013 in Palo Alto.

Theranos Founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes in 2013.

Glenn Fawcett/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire

In recent years, the corporate world has given rise to a new figure: the Ladyboss. The Ladyboss is usually white. She is usually young. She is usually pretty. She pays lip service to promoting diversity and equality in the workplace, even though it’s hard not to notice that there are very few people of color being promoted to leadership roles, and that the office maternity leave policy sucks (if there is even one to begin with). Perhaps she will take on a protégé, or a string of protégés, all of whom, despite living in a state of constant terror, are awed to be in her presence. None of them will last longer than a few months.

Perhaps above all else, the Ladyboss is resistant to being called out on her behavior. Whatever form her punitive and self-serving behavior comes in — calculating passive aggression, teeth-gnashing fits of anger, forcing her employees to clean her improvised salad utensils — she will not atone for it, because being a Ladyboss means never having to say you’re sorry. Instead, she will justify it by invoking an argument that would, in virtually almost any other context, probably be accurate: that if a man behaved the same way she did, he wouldn’t get called out on it.

The ascent of the Ladyboss stems from the popularization of what has been referred to as “Lean-In Feminism,” inspired by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. When it was first published in 2013, Lean In was widely lauded for advocating that women “lean in” in the workplace to achieve professional empowerment and success; it has since been roundly criticized for promoting a sanitized, corporate-backed view of female empowerment in which women must abide by the rules of the game as set by wealthy white men to achieve career advancement. The book has also been slammed for ignoring many of the structural barriers in place preventing low-income women or women of color from being hired in leadership roles. Subsequent reports of Sandberg’s unethical leadership at Facebook have further contributed to our retrospective understanding that she may be far from the feminist working woman heroine we had hoped for.

Yet since Lean In feminism entered the popular zeitgeist, it has given rise to a cottage industry of rah-rah girl-power messaging, all of which promotes the message that women can do and be and achieve anything, provided the system is already stacked in your favor to begin with: Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work, the Netflix TV series Girlboss, Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Wash Your Face, gynecology startups with sky-high copays, wildly expensive millennial pink co-working spaces,and brands without maternity leave policies tweeting about #InternationalWomensDay It has also given rise to the idea that women in power are unimpeachable and immune to feminist critique, simply by virtue of the fact that they have achieved such high positions, as evidenced by Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 presidential campaign and its defenders, or Sarah Sanders’ assertion that any feminist who did not support first female CIA director Gina Haspel was a “hypocrite.”

And more than arguably anything else, Lean In feminism also gave rise to Elizabeth Holmes.

Holmes, the disgraced CEO and founder of the health startup Theranos at the center of HBO’s new documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, has captured the public imagination for a few reasons: her disturbingly deep (and allegedly fake) baritone, her predilection for Issey Miyake black turtlenecks, her apparent compulsion to lie to people about minor details, up to and including the breed of her dog, Balto.

Perhaps above all else, though, Holmes is a fascinating figure because she is so inscrutable (or, as the New Yorker put it, she is a “vexingly sphinxlike figure”). Since her career’s demise, she has given few interviews, so we have no way of knowing anything about her motives. In the absence of such insights, The Inventor provides a few theories: specifically, that Holmes was an idealist gone bad, a well-intentioned entrepreneur who believed in her company and her vision so much that she believed the ends would justify the fraudulent means. All of which seem to obfuscate what appears to be the plain truth: that she was a scam artist, and a pretty good one at that.

It’s not as if Holmes was the only young, white, highly educated person in the world who had figured out that all of these traits could grant her access to a world that would have otherwise been off limits. As many have previously noted, there is, in fact, a long list of scammers who have made headlines in the past year alone who have fallen into this category, from Fyre Fest founder Billy MacFarland to crime novelist Daniel Mallory to college admissions fraud huckster Rick Singer, men whose outrageously egregious behavior (including, in the case of Mallory, leaving cups of urine on a co-worker’s desk) was given a pass for years, if not decades. The only difference is that Holmes was a woman, and while that does not make her any less guilty than the names previously mentioned, it does mean that she was able to hide behind the trappings of a relatively new archetype — the Silicon Valley Ladyboss — to conceal her fraudulent behavior.

As one of the few female leaders in Silicon Valley (only 11 percent of all Silicon Valley executives are women, according to a 2014 report), Holmes’s gender worked to her advantage in terms of garnering media attention. As Alex Gibney, the director of The Inventor, told Time, “She’s looking at us and saying ‘Support me because I am a woman in male-dominated Silicon Valley and I’m doing something great for the world.’ And we want to say, ‘Yeah, we’re behind you. 100 percent.’” It also attracted the attention of venture capitalists and powerful older, wealthy white men, many of whom ended up joining Theranos’s board. “She aligned herself with very powerful older men who seemed to succumb to a certain charm. And those powerful men could influence people in the government,” Phyllis Gardner, Holmes’s former Stanford professor, said in The Inventor.

The choice of Margaret Thatcher as a feminist totem should have perhaps clued us in on Holmes’s motives.

Holmes was hyper-conscious of this fact, though in interviews she framed it more often as a disadvantage, telling Bloomberg: “when you walk into the room and you’re a 19-year-old girl, people interact with you in a certain way.” (This is reportedly why she adopted her famous baritone in favor of her natural voice.) While it very well may be true that Holmes had to fight to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field, it does underscore the position of tremendous privilege she had as an attractive young white women in Silicon Valley — a privilege that stands in stark contrast to the mythos of the self-made, hardscrabble entrepreneur she tried to build for herself. (The fact that her father was a former Enron executive whose retirement fund helped start her company probably didn’t hurt, either.) “Holmes performed a sleight of hand not often achieved by women in public life. She didn’t have to prove herself or her ideas to be handsomely rewarded for them,” wrote Ann Friedman in Elle. “She was a kind of anti-Hillary: underprepared, underqualified, and beloved by men.”

Despite the immense privilege and exceptional circumstances that enabled her to get her foot in the door in the first place, Holmes gave a few cursory nods to the importance of female solidarity in Silicon Valley, launching a five-week mentorship summit for women in the sciences and a Twitter campaign, #IronSisters. Yet the symbol of female solidarity Holmes chose was telling: the “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, the hard-line British neoconservative who is, among other things, known for putting the kibosh on a program that gave free milk to British schoolchildren. “Every time you see a glass ceiling there’s an ‘iron woman’ underneath it,” Holmes told the women at the summit, according to Fortune. What she failed to mention is that as Thatcher’s career demonstrates, some of the Iron Women busting this glass ceiling are assholes.

While the choice of Thatcher as a feminist totem should have perhaps clued us in on Holmes’s motives, her female employees looked up to her regardless. “In a way I idolized her, based on the little I had read — for being a woman in the sciences, being a woman in tech, the fact that she started her own company — that really got me excited,” says Erica Cheung, a former Theranos employee who later became known as a company whistleblower, in The Inventor. “She was a really good idol to have.” Of course, there was nothing about Holmes’ management skills or leadership qualities that deserved veneration: according to the ABC News podcast The Dropout, she was prone to temper tantrums and lashing out at employees she perceived as disloyal to her, particularly in the company’s final days. But the truth is, it makes sense why Cheung would have been drawn to her as a mentor: as the first female billionaire in Silicon Valley and one of only a handful of female CEOs, Holmes was one of the few options Cheung really had.

Holmes failed to realize that cloaking yourself in feminism only works if you actively advocate for women other than yourself.

After John Carreyrou’s bombshell Wall Street Journal exposes of Theranos were published, Holmes was prepared to use her gender as a strategic advantage to defend herself, just as she did during her rapid ascent. And like Amy Klobuchar after her, who angrily chalked up reports of her abusive behavior on the campaign trail to garden-variety sexism, Holmes hinted in interviews that she was being unfairly targeted because she was a woman. “Until what happened in the last four weeks, I didn’t understand what it means to be a woman in this space,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg Business Week. “Every article starting with, ‘A young woman.’ Right? Someone came up to me the other day, and they were like, ‘I have never read an article about Mark Zuckerberg that starts with ‘A young man.’ ” What Holmes failed to realize is that cloaking yourself in feminism only works if you actively advocate for women other than yourself.

After it became clear that Theranos would dissolve and the takes on Holmes started pouring in, people — particularly women — immediately started worrying that she had set a terrible example for future female CEOs, and that she had ultimately set feminism back. “Holmes was held up as a model for what happens when ambitious businesswomen gain an unprecedented level of investment and trust. To our great detriment, because of the charges against her, the world may have an answer: They fake it. And now it’ll be that much harder for the rest of us to make it,” Friedman wrote.

But Elizabeth Holmes’ story is instructive for women in the corporate world only that it demonstrates the extent to which extreme privilege can blind the rest of the world to your shortcomings, as well as the dangers of buying into a slippery narrative of female empowerment that only benefits a very small handful of women. And just as one powerful woman’s fall from grace doesn’t mean that all powerful women will share a similar fate, Holmes’ story is proof that just because one woman worked hard enough to gain that power doesn’t mean she worked to gain our respect.

Elizabeth Holmes rose to prominence because our culture will always make a seat at the table for wealthy, young, beautiful, ambitious white women, so we can hold them up as examples for women who may not be all or any of those things and tell them see, look at her, you too can Have It All. She managed to get a seat at the table because it was available, and because she wanted it; because there was, sadly, no one else who hewed as closely to the prototype of what a successful corporate female leader should be. But that’s not to say that that seat won’t be available again, and that’s not to say women shouldn’t try to succeed where Elizabeth Holmes had failed. It just means we have to reexamine what that prototype looks like.

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