Did Prosecutors Hold Elizabeth Holmes to an Unfair Standard?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos founder, commanded headlines and magazine covers as an executive worth billions. Just convicted for financial fraud, she is no less spellbinding in defeat. Hers is the story that launched a thousand articles — as well as several podcasts, books and movies. She’s fascinating because we can’t decide what to make of her. A manipulative villain? A credulous ingenue? A perpetrator or a victim?
Public opinion may never be settled. But one notion I’d like to see fizzle is that prosecutors held Holmes to an unfair standard because she’s a woman.
It’s true, as my colleague Parmy Olson points out, that Silicon Valley has a well-established fake-it-till-you-make-it culture. Some male entrepreneurs do engage in puffery to attract investments for their startups.
But that doesn’t make Holmes’s conviction for fraud evidence of a gender-based double standard. If anything, it’s a reminder that there are justifiable limits to what executives can say — especially in industries such as health care.
For another, it’s possible that the narrow result of the jury’s decision — convicting on only four of 11 charges — indicates that Holmes still managed to catch a break. Corporate history is littered with male executives who went to jail for wrongdoing, from Jeffrey Skilling to Bernie Madoff to Martin Shkreli. And prosecutors in the Holmes trial presented ample evidence that she knowingly lied about her product.
But Holmes’s lawyers — and Holmes herself, on the witness stand — did an impressive job of softening her image and blunting the prosecution’s impact. To do this, Holmes and her team played on sympathetic gender stereotypes — portraying her variously as an ingenue who didn’t understand the limitations of her company’s technology, a victim of sexual and emotional abuse and a young mother. (Holmes’s defense lawyers invoked these gender archetypes much more skillfully and subtly than did the legal team of Ghislaine Maxwell, which hamfistedly compared her to the biblical temptress Eve. It didn’t work.)
Of course, human beings are complex, and Holmes may in fact be all of those things. She is also, now, a former chief executive officer convicted of misleading investors about her company. It is infantilizing to suggest that she didn’t know what she was doing, or that she was a corporate figurehead without any real agency or knowledge of the company she founded.
Yes, it’s true that women as a group are held to higher standards in business and that their errors are judged more harshly. Several academic studies have shown that women’s mistakes incur stronger penalties, especially in male-dominated fields. But that doesn’t make Holmes — a specific woman in a specific set of circumstances — an example of the phenomenon. It stretches the definition of euphemism to call Holmes’s decade of lies a “mistake.”
That’s not to say that sexism played zero role in the Theranos saga. Without the startup world’s sexism, Elizabeth Holmes may never have become the darling of magazine covers or the TED stage. In a world where female founders get funded at the rate they deserve, her success would not have been so unusual, and therefore not so newsworthy. In a world where racism and ageism weren’t rampant, other female founders — those not young, blonde and white and whose products actually, you know, worked — might commandeer more magazine covers. In a more meritocratic world, the kind of tokenism that led to Holmes’s meteoric rise — outstripping her product’s utility — would not exist.
The lesson to take from her conviction is not that women face a double standard — we already know that — but that the image Holmes managed to convey was a mirage.
It’s the old double bind of male-dominated jobs: To seem competent, a woman has to dial down her femininity. But if she wants to be likeable, she has to emphasize that femininity — and to be successful she must be liked. That creates what’s known as the warmth-competence paradox: For a woman to succeed, likability is essential. For men, it’s optional.
Holmes mastered that warmth-competence tightrope-walk. She managed to create a public persona that was a perfect blend of masculine and feminine, adopting black turtlenecks and a baritone voice, while sporting red lipstick and being publicly vulnerable about her fear of needles. In hindsight, it may look hopelessly contrived. How could anyone have believed it? But the more important question is: Why are so many women still expected to walk this tightrope?
It was wrong to hold up Elizabeth Holmes as an exemplar of female leadership when she was a darling of the business world. It would be wrong now to make her an example of how women are held to an unfair standard. Let her instead remind us that our image of the ideal female leader has all the subtlety of a straitjacket.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.
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