Theranos founder-CEO Elizabeth Holmes: Feminist icon?

October 29, 2015, 8:44 PM UTC
CNBC Events - Clinton Global Initiative 2015
CNBC EVENTS -- Pictured: Elizabeth Holmes, Founder and CEO, Theranos speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, in New York City on September 29, 2015 -- (Photo by: Adam Jeffery/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Photograph by Adam Jeffery — CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Glamour announced its annual Women of the Year list on Thursday morning. While the publication choose plenty of big names, one in particular jumped out: Elizabeth Holmes, founder of blood-testing startup Theranos.

For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, Theranos was the subject of a scathing Wall Street Journal report in mid-October, which alleged that the company doesn’t use its own technology for many tests and that some of its tests may be inaccurate. While Theranos has repeatedly disputed many of the publication’s claims, more critical stories have followed, raising a number of questions about the company’s lack of transparency and its long-term viability.

A Glamour spokesperson notes that the WSJ story broke just as the magazine was going to press, so it’s not clear the magazine’s editors would have selected Holmes had they known about the coming questions. For now, the publication has posted their magazine online with just a few “tweaks” according to a spokesperson, who adds that Glamour plans to update the web story at some point in the future.

I get why Glamour picked her, of course. Until the Wall Street Journal report, Holmes presented an irresistible story—and in some ways, she still does.

Holmes was the only female chemical engineering student in her undergrad class at Stanford University. She founded Theranos in her dorm room and dropped out at 19 to focus on the company full time—the type of risky, ambitious backstory we associate with male founders, not female ones. As Fortune‘s Michal Lev-Ram once noted, she is one of the few women to lead a so-called unicorn company and the only one at the head of a “decacorn,” industry slang for a startup valued at $10 billion or more. In the Glamour piece, Holmes even draws a comparison of her company’s mission to provide people with more information about their health to women’s suffrage.

It’s unfair to single Glamour out for celebrating Holmes and for failing to ask tougher questions about Theranos. Many publications—including Fortune—put Theranos on the cover without uncovering any of the problems revealed in the WSJ piece.

There’s no single reason Holmes got so much coverage, but one factor is clear: The media is desperate for a woman to hold up as a model of success at this level. And for her to be young, photogenic, and so storyline-friendly is an added bonus: Holmes, who displays a preference for black turtlenecks, has been called “the female Steve Jobs” dozens of times.

And it’s not just a question of selling magazines or getting clicks. In a piece that claims, “no matter what happens to the biotech start-up, feminists need CEO Elizabeth Holmes,” Elle writer Mattie Kahn puts it this way: “As someone who is ambitious and young and hungry, it costs me a lot to give up Elizabeth Holmes. I don’t have better replacements for her.”

Kahn’s story suggests that the recent spate of negative stories about Theranos have had a sexist tone, using words like “hyper-aggressive” and “overhyped” to describe Holmes and the company. And despite Holmes denials, she writes, “chances are good that the investigation will continue. And when it does, we’ll watch yet another woman try to defend her reputation in public.”

Kahn makes some thought-provoking points about how the media treats successful, ambitious women—particularly on the way down. However, I would argue that we serve women best by treating Holmes like any other founder. To find out how we should really view her, we need to get to the bottom of this story. And pulling punches is no path to equality: Holmes should be held accountable when it’s appropriate. She is the founder, CEO and public face of the company. She posed for the magazine covers, so her name should also be in the headline when the story turns critical.

With new revelations about the company surfacing on an almost daily basis, this story is clearly still unfolding. Let’s judge Holmes and her company by the facts that emerge.

If it turns out that Holmes misled the public or exaggerated her company’s capabilities, she certainly wouldn’t be the first CEO to do so. But the question of whether Holmes’ technology is what she says it is has a different level of importance than whether, say, an app or a piece of software works as advertised. Theranos’ customers’ health—and perhaps even their lives—are at stake.

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