Does Elizabeth Holmes’s Gender Matter?


This week on The Daily was all about health care — covering vaccine mandates, questionable diagnoses and prescriptions in nursing homes, abortion in Mexico and the Elizabeth Holmes trial. Below, we answer some of your questions about the trial, and talk to our producer about her experience behind the scenes making the one outlier episode of the week, today’s show about Broadway’s reopening.

Much has been said, and speculated, about the import of Elizabeth Holmes’s trial for wire fraud at her former company, Theranos: that it represents a double standard for women in tech, that it’s a referendum on pro-capitalist feminism and the cult of the “girlboss,” and that the case has forever changed Silicon Valley’s culture of braggadocious (read: potentially fraudulent) marketing norms. There have been books, podcasts and documentaries — and now, the trial is here.

Yesterday, we heard from Erin Griffith, one of our National correspondents, about what she’s looking out for as the trial begins. But some of you wrote in wondering how, after all this hype, Elizabeth Holmes’s gender identity might play into the trial. So we followed up with Erin to ask:

One listener wrote, “It seems a little weird that none of the many men who may have played fast and loose with their communications and representations in their tech start-ups have faced such a trial, but this rare woman does.” What do you make of that?

It’s a great point. In general, not many white-collar crimes get prosecuted; in Silicon Valley the list is even shorter.

One big factor in this case is the stakes of Theranos’s marketing pitch — claims that held import for customers’ health. Even though this case is ultimately about defrauding investors, the very real, very harmful consequences of Theranos’s faulty test results loom large over it.

On top of that, we have also seen some incredibly damning evidence already, including allegedly falsified documents and lies about the state of Theranos’s business. For all the attention that some of the other major start-up downfalls in recent years have gotten, I don’t remember seeing anything that blatant.

There are also signs that that trend may be shifting as tech start-ups amass more power, wealth and influence. There are several ongoing criminal investigations into Juul, the vaping start-up, for example. A few weeks ago authorities charged the founder of a software start-up called HeadSpin with defrauding investors.

Is Holmes’s identity as a female C.E.O. playing into her defense? If not thus far, do you anticipate it will?

Two things here:

1. Lawyers on both sides have already sparred about this in the lead-up to the trial. Prosecutors asked the judge to forbid any arguments saying Elizabeth Holmes was simply doing what everyone in Silicon Valley does: exaggerating. They also asked the judge to forbid the argument that she was unfairly singled out for any reason. Judge Edward Davila permitted general commentary on start-up marketing but forbid the “singled out” argument.

2. Elizabeth Holmes was indicted alongside a man, Sunny Balwani, the former president of Theranos and her romantic partner at the time. The cases were separated and Balwani’s trial is set to begin next year. In filings, Ms. Holmes’s lawyers said she is likely to testify that she was emotionally and physically abused by Mr. Balwani and that the abuse made it impossible for her to intend to deceive investors.

That is a fairly unprecedented argument to make in a white-collar crime. If they do use that strategy, I really have no idea how the jury might react to it.

What has shaped how you’re thinking about gender in this case?

Over the years I’ve had a lot of conversations about Theranos with people in and around Silicon Valley, the broader business world and the media. What I found most compelling was hearing from female founders, especially in life sciences and health care. Many of them told me that the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes is still impacting them. That resulted in this story about how female founders are still being compared to or asked about Elizabeth Holmes. She was the most successful example of a female founder at the time and remains one of the most infamous ones. One thing I heard over and over was just disappointment that this person who was held up as such a shining example for women in tech turned out to be an accused fraud. Everyone wanted the next Steve Jobs to be a smart young woman so badly that a lot of them overlooked obvious red flags. The impact of that is still being felt.

Today, we covered the reopening of Broadway, and the journey it took to get here, from the perspective of a single show — “Six,” a musical reimagining of the lives of King Henry VIII’s six wives.

Broadway reopening is a “symbol for the city” of renewal and resilience, as the Times theater reporter Michael Paulson said in the episode. Our team chose to follow “Six” because its reopening had special resonance — the show had been set to open the very day Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered New York theater to shut down in March 2020.

The episode saw two producers, Sydney Harper and Luke Vander Ploeg, take to the streets as shows reopened — recording Lin Manuel Miranda welcoming a crowd outside of Richard Rodgers Theater, the home of “Hamilton.”

“It was such a joyful atmosphere; walking around the streets of Broadway was kind of like electric,” Sydney said. “When you hear the cheers and that pure crowd joy, to be in a room with people feeling that much joy simultaneously at this time in the world, it felt like a balm for my pandemic soul, it just felt so special.”

Here’s a photo of Sydney and Luke recording. For your weekend, Sydney also recommends listening to the soundtrack of “Six,” saying: “I have not stopped singing these songs for a week. I don’t know if you’ve listened to the music at all but they’re bops.”

Monday: An exploration of the Biden administration’s decision to mandate coronavirus vaccines for millions of Americans.

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