Reviews | The sexism that led to the trial of Elizabeth Holmes

Elizabeth Holmes followed the Silicon Valley playbook to a T. She was focused and ambitious. She had a compelling vision to help humanity with blood testing technology, and her ambition, she said, was driven by a personal fear of needles. She matched the model of the bright young college dropout, even dressing like Steve Jobs.

When she founded the unconventional blood testing company Theranos in 2003, I was relieved to finally see a woman take advantage of the hyperbole that dominates venture capital investment, a world in which I have worked for nine years, in total. Why shouldn’t a woman show the same steadfast confidence as her male peers? In 2015, Ms. Holmes raised over $ 400 million in funding and Theranos was valued at $ 9 billion. Finally, I thought: a charismatic woman with a compelling vision, in fact capable of raising huge amounts of funding at astronomical valuations.

But after it was revealed that Theranos was not transparent when its blood testing equipment failed, it became clear that the company would be the exception that proves the rule that CTOs rarely face all of it. the consequences of the damage they cause.

Yet Mrs. Holmes is also exceptional for the fundamental fact that she is a woman. Time and time again, we find that the boys’ club of the tech industry supports and protects theirs, even when the costs are enormous. And when the door opens very slightly to let a woman in, the same rules don’t apply. Indeed, as Ms. Holmes’ fraud trial continues in San José, it is clear that two things may be true. She should be held accountable for their actions as CEO of Theranos. And it can be sexist to hold her accountable for alleged serious wrongdoing and not hold a group of men accountable for reports of wrongdoing or poor judgment.

Questionable, unethical, and even dangerous behavior has spread throughout the male-dominated world of tech start-ups. Although they have never been charged with crimes, WeWork’s Adam Neumann and Uber’s Travis Kalanick have struggled to raise more than $ 10 billion for their businesses, saying they will disrupt their stagnant and tired industries.

Remember the accusations of harassment, privacy breaches, price hikes, misleading advertising and one of dozens of other scandals at Uber? What about the Facebook-instigated genocide in Myanmar, or its engagement-centric approach that led to the proliferation of anti-vaccination propaganda on the platform? Neither Mr. Kalanick nor Mark Zuckerberg faced significant legal consequences.

Meanwhile, a Tesla employee reportedly described part of a Tesla manufacturing plant as a predatory area for women. There are reports of allegations of racist threats, effigies and humiliations against black workers. (Tesla told The Times there was no evidence of a “pattern of discrimination and harassment.”) Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, had his hand slapped for fraud – only by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which banned him from posting on Twitter without the supervision of Tesla’s lawyers.

Leading this race to the bottom, Juul introduced mainstream vaping, raising billions of dollars along the way. Kevin Burns, the managing director who helped raise $ 12.8 billion for Juul from tobacco giant Altria, said his product was designed to help people quit smoking. Nonetheless, in June 2019, Congress launched an investigation into Juul’s role in the youth nicotine epidemic, including efforts to market its products as safe for children. In mid-February 2020, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 68 people in the United States had died from lung injury associated with the use of vaping products.

Male business leaders and founders are simply not being held accountable in a way that would lead to reform across the tech industry. And even when they have to answer for their actions, they very quickly find their way back to the fold.

Mr. Burns left Juul in September 2019 and less than a year later was hired by Alto Pharmacy, an online pharmacy that raised $ 376 million in funding. Mr. Kalanick did even better, raising $ 400 million for his new venture.

Each announcement confirms what those of us who have spoken have known for some time: Tech investors generally don’t care about allegations of fraud, harassment or discrimination, especially if they can profit from them.

The power imbalance between predominantly male investors and female entrepreneurs also didn’t seem to change much – let alone in a way that would empower or protect founders. In an industry where female founders receive only 11 percent of seed money through seed funding and 64 percent of venture capital firms in the United States do not have female partners, we shouldn’t to be surprised. When you consider the intersectional data, the bias is even more damning: Venture capitalists have given a meager 0.34% of funding in the United States to founding black women in the first six months of this year. The sexism in tech is real and alive.

These problems cannot be ignored or faked. If members of the Investor Boy’s Club do not hold each other accountable, prosecutors must step in, as they currently do with Elizabeth Holmes.

Ellen K. Pao is a technology investor and CEO of the non-profit Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Project. She wrote “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change” about her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins and her experience with Reddit.

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