Did Elizabeth Holmes Delude Smart Men by Acting Like a Man?

Gender norms may have affected the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder.

Posted May 11, 2019

Stories of corporate greed and deceit aren’t unusual but the saga of Theranos, a health technology company promising a revolutionary new method for blood testing, stands out for its level of hubris, self-delusion and willful gullibility. Founded by then 19-year-old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos raised more than $700 million from private investors and venture capitalists and was valued at over $10 billion at the height of its hype. Holmes was the darling of Silicon Valley and celebrated as one of the most successful woman entrepreneurs the world had ever seen—before the company was liquidated in 2018 and Holmes charged with “massive fraud” by the SEC.

Photo by Max Morse for TechCrunch [CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons
Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos
Source: Photo by Max Morse for TechCrunch [CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons

The saga of Theranos’s spectacular downfall played out in the Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine among other media outlets and is documented in detail in the recent book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, a reporter for the WSJ who was the first to pull back the curtain on the dysfunctional company. Documented in Carreyrou’s book are multiple instances where alarm bells were repeatedly ignored by highly successful men, including George Schulz, James Mattis, Henry Kissinger, and Rupert Murdoch, to name but a few. Each time things turned dicey, Holmes would turn the tide following one-on-one meetings where she presumably provided reassurance that the company was sound and the promised miracle product on track. These men are skilled in the boardroom, on the battlefield, and as political leaders. So how could this happen? One explanation is very simple. Elizabeth was convincing because she was a beautiful woman who dressed, talked, and acted like a man. 

Wait just a minute—why say such a thing? Women have long since been emancipated from a feminizing dress code. And what does “talk like a man” even mean? There’s no gender-specific language. Fair enough, let me explain. First, by Holmes’s own admission, as well as others, she was viewed as the next Steve Jobs, and as such, she adopted an identical dress code of a black turtle neck and black pants. The only photos I could find of Holmes wearing colors other than black and white in Google Images were of Kate McKinnon announcing she would play her in an upcoming Hulu series. Ok, but so what? Lots of women wear mostly black. True, but most women don’t wear the same black wardrobe every day, whereas Steve Jobs famously did so.   

Carreyrou’s book also highlighted what many have noted as Holme’s preternaturally low voice. Women can have naturally low voices, and some men have high voices, but Carreyrou suggests that in Holmes's case it was a conscious decision and began only after she became famous. The lower voice of human males is considered a sexually selected trait as it emerges at puberty and is positivity associated with reproductive success. A detailed analysis of various components of men’s voices in the Proceedings of the Royal Society finds significant positive associations between those traits most sexually dimorphic and men’s body size, strength, and testosterone levels.   

And then there is her body posture. In both photos and video of Holmes, she is frequently seen leaning forward, chopping the air with her hand like an axe. She rarely crosses her legs the way most women (and many men) do, but instead places one ankle on the other knee, her leg forming a sharp right angle as she pulls her body forward, filling a larger space. In an excruciating interview with Allan Murray of Fortune after the initial WSJ story broke, she holds this posture the entire time, leaning forward with shoulders hunched and in her deep voice confidently explaining how the media got it wrong. Her words are proactive and commanding, she is in control and the swirling rumors will be dispelled once she is free to reveal all she has achieved. A study in the journal Social Behavior and Personality confirmed previous reports that on average men adopt a broader sitting stance than women, but went a step further in finding that a mismatch between gender and sitting posture altered viewers perception of the individual, even though they were only looking at photographs.

The house of cards that was Theranos stood for over 10 years in large part because of aggressive use of non-disclosure agreements and litigation against past employees. But what is not so easy to explain is why so many powerful smart men who were not Theranos employees but rather members of the board, investors, and even customers continued to buy into the dream despite compelling evidence something was amiss. Murdoch invested enormous sums of money and George Schulz chose to believe Holmes over his own grandson, a disillusioned former employee of Theranos credited with being a critical whistleblower. 

The combination of dress, voice, and posture adopted by Holmes suggests she was intentionally trying to project a masculine image, but why would this make powerful men believe her? It is plausible that Holmes was so effective at persuading powerful men because she projected male power back at them, creating a sense of camaraderie based on mutual trust. But it is equally plausible that the aura of masculinity combined with feminine beauty created a beguiling brew that these silverback males couldn’t resist, the perfect combination of a respected equal and a fragile underling needing protection and support. We will never know, and surely there were different factors at play for each of them, but the list of the duped is long and distinguished. Something very unusual happened here.