Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes Hints at Sexism in Media Coverage

Published: Dec 14, 2015

Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes Hints at Sexism in Media Coverage
December 11, 2015
By Alex Keown, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

PALO ALTO Calif. – Elizabeth Holmes, the embattled chief executive officer of blood-testing company Theranos bristles at being consistently referred to as a “young woman” in many news reports despite founding a company that has a value of approximately $12 billion.

In an interview with Bloomberg, the 31-year-old Holmes said she was not prepared for how she would be attacked in the media following reports questioning her company’s blood-testing kits.

“Until what happened in the last four weeks, I didn’t understand what it means to be a woman in this space,” she told Bloomberg. “Every article starting with, ‘A young woman.’ Right? Someone came up to me the other day, and they were like, ‘I have never read an article about Mark Zuckerberg that starts with ‘A young man.’?”

Holmes, who founded her company when she was 19, is well known for wearing an all-black ensemble of slacks and a turtleneck, much like the now deceased Apple visionary Steve Jobs, in order to have people focus on her and what she was saying about her product rather than what she was wearing, she told Bloomberg.

The scrutiny of Holmes and her company was sparked by a scathing Wall Street Journal report alleging the company only performs 10 percent of its blood tests on its proprietary technology. Holmes, the world’s youngest female billionaire, and her company, Palo Alto-based Theranos are under fire after the Journal alleged the company only preforms 10 percent of its blood tests with the company’s proprietary technology and opts to perform the majority of its blood tests using technology acquired from other companies, including Siemens . In the article, the Journal cited several former Theranos employees, as well as the medical records of patients who had used the Theranos blood test. According to the article, the former employees allege the company split testing between its own proprietary Edison machines and technology acquired from other companies. The use of the two separate technologies yielded different results “when testing for vitamin D, two thyroid hormones and prostate cancer.”

Theranos fired back, calling the report “factually and scientifically erroneous,” according to a statement on the company website. The company said the allegations “grounded in baseless assertions by inexperienced and disgruntled former employees and industry incumbents.”

Since the Journal’s report, other issues have arisen, placing Theranos and Holmes on a hot seat. Most recently a Washington Post report alleges the company was attempting to skirt federal law by asking a Department of Defense official to intervene in an inquiry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over its blood-testing kits. In 2012, the Department of Defense raised concerns about Theranos' blood testing technology and notified the FDA. The Post reported Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes sought aid from Marine Gen. James Mattis, who now serves on the company board of directors, to “squelch those ‘inaccurate’ concerns” raised by the DOD official. Theranos told the Post the Department of Defense was interested in adapting the company’s blood tests for battlefield use in a pilot program that would not have required FDA approval.

Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called the company’s proprietary Nanotainer tubes an uncleared medical device in inspection reports released in October. Although the FDA’s documents are heavily redacted, federal regulators were critical of some of the practices its inspectors observed, including improper classification for its proprietary Nanotainer tubes used for blood specimens. The FDA said Theranos’ Nanotainer blood specimen tubes are not properly filed as a Class II medical device, but are instead being identified as a Class I medical exempt device. As a result, the FDA said Theranos is “currently shipping this uncleared medical device in interstate commerce between California, Arizona and Pennsylvania.” Theranos said it has “addressed or corrected all the observations at the time of, or within a week of the inspection.”

Since the Theranos’ troubles, Holmes told Bloomberg that her new focus is on ensuring Theranos’ products meets its claims.

“I mean, is it incredibly painful to see people say this kind of stuff about us? Of course it is,” she told Bloomberg. “But is it a crisis? No. We’ve built something that’s incredible, and we have now the opportunity to showcase it.”

Back to news