Elizabeth Holmes Trial
BY EMMA XIANG '23
The typical “girlboss” is young, white, and pretty. She pushes male-imposed boundaries, criticizes the gender equality disparities in the workforce, and uses her achievements as a pillar for success. Yet, the girlboss often uses a quest for equality to veil her own ambition. Instead of dismantling male-dominated systems, she infiltrates them, even assimilating by donning Steve Jobs-esque turtlenecks and a baritone voice. And although she succeeds, she offers no valid critique nor solution to dismantle oppressive, male-dominated workforces.
The girlboss reflects white feminism: a focus on white women’s experiences coupled with a failure to apply intersectionality. This mindset—which is prevalent in STEM—pressures women to obtain power by breaking through barriers instead of questioning why the barriers exist in the first place. Elizabeth Holmes’ facade of a successful female scientist coupled with her fall from grace exemplifies white feminism’s dangerous implications.
For a long time, Holmes embodied the girlboss. As a nineteen-year-old Stanford dropout, she founded the biotech company Theranos, claiming her technology could perform multiple blood tests, like glucose measurements or antibody detections, via a finger prick. Her company would have revolutionized biotechnology by increasing access to early disease detection through cheaper, more consumer-driven healthcare. Holmes presented herself as a female entrepreneur who had broken through the barriers of a male-dominated industry and collected over $600 million in funding. However, a 2015 Wall Street Journal investigation challenged the veracity of Holmes’ claims. It discovered that most of Theranos’ tests involved traditional vials of blood drawn from the arm, not the “few drops” taken by a finger prick. Theranos lost all its partnerships, Forbes recalculated its net worth to be $0, and Holmes was indicted on fraud. In 2021, Holmes was found guilty on four of the eleven charges, fined $250,000 plus restitution, and will face up to 20 years in prison.
Holmes’ massive success mystifies many. Despite dropping out of college after one year, she supposedly had enough expertise to revolutionize the entire biotechnology field. Multiple scientific communities questioned Holmes’ technology and its validity when it emerged, though she quickly dismissed their accusations. Referencing biases against women in the scientific community to deflect backlash, Holmes weaponized women’s struggles in STEM for personal gain. In doing so, she destabilized the legitimacy of their experiences, especially those of women of color, who tend to experience greater discrimination. According to the National Science Board, women make up 28% of the current STEM workforce, but women of color only comprise about 5% of this percentage. Furthermore, a Pew Research Center survey revealed that 62% of Black, 44% of Asian, and 42% of Hispanic women in STEM reported gender discrimination, a sentiment shared by only 13% of white women. Holmes’s successful infiltration of the male-dominated biotech industry amidst professional criticism forces one to question whether the same privilege would have been extended to a woman of color. Her actions have also tainted female activism in STEM by implying that women’s complaints, specifically those by women of color, are equally deceitful.
Even after Theranos’ fall, Holmes’s sympathizers continued to defend her on social media, claiming that the pressure to succeed in a traditionally male industry forced Holmes to build a deceitful legacy. This glorification of Holmes reflects society’s willingness to continue the dangerous cycle of white feminism; while it appears to open up more executive positions to women, only white women reap the benefits. These limitations emphasize how this process is merely a band-aid solution used to hide deeper discriminatory structures. Holmes’ actions threaten the credibility of future female entrepreneurs and scientists and undermines the validity of gender discrimination claims. This builds a more impenetrable barrier, effectively hindering any attempts to dismantle the gender hierarchy within STEM industries.
With an increasing importance of diversity and equality within corporations, it is imperative that oppressive systems are dismantled, not accommodated. The Holmes case serves as an example of the dangers of white feminism and performative activism. The public’s choice to defend Holmes instead of recognizing the talents of true female leaders and trailblazers, many of whom are women of color, emphasizes society’s willingness to forgive privileged white women.
With an increasing importance of diversity and equality within corporations, it is imperative that oppressive systems are dismantled, not accommodated. The Holmes case serves as an example of the dangers of white feminism and performative activism. The public’s choice to defend Holmes instead of recognizing the talents of true female leaders and trailblazers, many of whom are women of color, emphasizes society’s leniency with privileged white women. In doing so, society fails to remove structural biases within corporations and withholds success from bright and credible young women who do possess the knowledge to revolutionize STEM fields.