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Is Elizabeth Holmes An Outlier: Women in STEM (Part I)


“There are more men named John running large companies than women.”

She steps into the room full of men, black turtleneck sweater and her hair tied back. She stands before them, puts on a deep voice, and begins. They are all in awe, they say yes, she is now as powerful as they are. In ten years the Stanford drop-out, Elizabeth Holmes, was supported by influential personalities and became one of the most important women in the STEM world. Her ability to convince others to blindly invest in her was unprecedented—she made millions. In the end, she was too good to be true; Holmes is now facing charges of fraud and has stepped down as CEO of Theranos.

STEM industries have historically been led by men, and a large gender gap still exists in the number of students, faculty members, and workers in that space. Women all over the world face strong sexism and intimidation while entering STEM careers, forcing them to adapt to male-dominated spaces. Holmes was once the beacon of hope for many female entrepreneurs, a role model for girls who grew interested in tech and science. Regardless of her downfall and questionable actions (a.k.a crimes), Holmes is still a woman who faced different hurdles while being a student, an entrepreneur, a professional, and a CEO.

I believe there is no “Holmes effect,” and that she is, in fact, an outlier. But breaking the glass ceiling, gaining credibility, and taking power in these industries are still some of the hardest challenges women face. Female students, teachers, tech professionals, entrepreneurs, and CEOs share their stories to show how women supporting women can reduce the gap in STEM, despite cases like Holmes.

Mentors Needed

Before becoming an entrepreneur and CEO of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes was taking engineering classes at Stanford University. After “eye-opening” experiences, she decided to drop out and start her own company. According to Ana Carolina Mexia, a Software Engineer at LinkedIn and Stanford 2018 Computer Science graduate, the Stanford experience pushes you into entrepreneurship and most of the drop-outs are related to the startup culture. Holmes started building her brand and platform long before she caught the attention of Forbes, Business Insider or any major media outlet. “Most times, it’s the school’s label that gives you credibility; there are a lot of success cases, so I understand why someone would invest in Holmes. You may not be a genius and know the same stuff as any other student of your major, but you have the Stanford name,” says Mexia.

For Mexia, the journey to one of the most successful companies in Silicon Valley has surprisingly been better than for most Latina women. Nevertheless, she has been surrounded by machismo, male-dominated spaces, and imposter syndrome. Mexia recognizes that the latter is one of the greatest challenges for women in STEM. Her imposter syndrome started in middle school and high school. “It was an issue being the only woman in tech classes, especially in Mexico, breaking the wall to enter that world was so much difficult as a high school student in a country full of machismo.” 

The imposter syndrome has become a common thread for women in STEM careers, particularly in those like computer Science or math, where male majorities stand out. The existence of this psychological challenge has to do partially with the lack of female mentorship in positions of power and stereotypes surrounding STEM women. Yale University senior and Product Engineer at Snackpass, Constance Lam, thinks classrooms filled with testosterone can prevent female students from participating and feeling they are at the same level as their classmates. “Throughout university, I’ve had this unconscious fear and felt internally intimidated to speak up or to see myself as bright as my male classmates. I had internalized an imposter syndrome,” says Lam, who is majoring in computer Science and math. According to the Yale senior, having fewer women in the faculty and, specifically women of color, makes mentorships and empowerment even more difficult for STEM students.

Role models and mentors are crucial in attracting and keeping female talent in STEM fields. During Holmes’s time as a student (between 2002 and 2004), only 10% of women faculty at Stanford belonged to engineering, 6% to mathematics & statistics, 7.5% to computer science, and 11% to physics & chemistry. According to the most recent census, until 2016, of 257 professorial faculty in the Stanford School of Engineering, 15.6% were women and from the total faculty members by 2017, only 17% were women. The numbers are quite similar at other universities that are recognized as pioneers in STEM fields or startup culture. For example, at Yale University by 2017, only 37% of total faculty members were female.

The existence of a gender gap is not surprising, but why hasn’t it decreased in recent years despite the active promotion of gender equality? Alma Patricia Chávez, Regional Director of the IT and Computer Science Department at Tecnológico de Monterrey, explains that women in tech industries all around the world have to struggle with competition and stereotypes, particularly in academia. “It seems like everyone is worried about safe spaces for women and gender inequality, but few are actually doing something about it, especially men. In my case, I even had female colleagues questioning my work and mocking my feminism. If we don’t help each other or recognize the problem together, we won’t get anywhere,” says Chávez.

Circumstances for women in STEM industries and academia change depending on their country or specific context. Even when intimidation, competition, and stereotypes exist everywhere, women in regions like Latin America also have to worry about harassment and machismo getting in the way of their careers. For Chávez, “men [in Mexico] don’t know how to treat you if you’re their equal or if they’re your subordinates, so they end up falling into micromachismos or even “piropos (sexual remarks or pick-up-lines). Our female presence clashes with experiences and characteristics of historically male-dominated spaces.” By 2017, Tecnológico de Monterrey—one of the most privileged universities in Mexico—had a 46.1% female faculty and a 50.6% student population; however machismo, sexual harassment, and alienation from top positions continue to be a challenge for women at the Mexican university.

You Can Feel The Numbers

In 2015 Elizabeth Holmes became the youngest self-made, female billionaire, partially breaking her own glass ceiling in a male-dominated industry. However, not all of us can be the daughters of an Enron executive or be privileged enough to have an elite education. For most women, entering and growing inside the STEM world are extremely difficult tasks, especially in developing countries where science, technology, and research get less government funding—and accessing new technologies is more unlikely.

Data on female enrollment and teaching in STEM careers is not nearly as frightening as that of female labor participation and women in C-Suite positions. In 2018, less than 5% of Fortune 500 companies had female leaders; in the United States, only 24 women are currently leading big companies. “You can feel the numbers when entering the workforce. I am the only Latina in my team [at the LinkedIn headquarters] and even when most men treat me as their equal, there are very few women at the highest directive positions and this makes it harder for me to aspire and look up to someone. I’m constantly asking myself: Will I make it to the top?,” Mexia tells me. The software engineer doubts she will be returning to her homeland due to the ingrained machismo culture, the slow development of tech industries, and the lack of opportunities for women in general.

Candyce Costa, founder of Digital Business Women and Hello Tech Business, explains that women are treated differently due to cultural traits of the contexts they grew up in. As a Brazilian woman who has lived in Portugal and the United Kingdom, Costa has experienced that people, “in Latin countries (including Iberia) are more traditional and patriarchal than Europeans.” She believes that to empower women, “we need to help and support them with education, workplace support, family validation (…) this could be done everywhere as long our counterparts are on our side.” The lack of representation and horrifying numbers are not exclusive to big companies or to the STEM world; in fact, the political scenario also battles with important gender gaps. The Global Gender Gap Report of 2018 found that there are only 17 female heads of state across the 149 countries assessed, and only 18% of ministers and 24% of parliamentarians globally are women. The UN’s 5th Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality is far from being achieved; projections conclude that the overall global gender gap will take 108 years to close.

Not long ago, the largest and most important international organization started changing the way its agencies engaged in business and technology and included women in project developing, leadership, and consulting. The process, according to Katz Kiely CEO at BEEP and a technology consultant, has been slow and painful. “The first time I really felt like a woman in a man’s world was when I arrived as an advisor to the UN. Walking into a room as a digital woman innovator who was asked to change a hierarchical, bureaucratic, male-dominated organization, really made me aware that I was only a woman for them,” describes Kiely. The program she was asked to conduct had always been in the hands of high-powered men, who had changed the game rules very few times. She wanted to challenge these rules in trying to equally represent member states and have a 50% of women speakers. “When I presented my ideas to them, they must have thought I was joking. They told me there weren’t enough women at a senior level to invite,” Kiely explains. She became painfully aware she was a woman trying to get men to do things they had never done, battling with an internal monologue of “not pushing it any further,” rejection, and resistance. Luckily for everyone, the digital innovator did not give up and saw her plans come to life.  

Filipa Rodrigues, a data scientist at OutSystems with a Master’s degree in biophysics and biomedical engineering, says one of the main problems with numbers is that inevitably women and men organize in groups and can create a “boys club.” Then, women in the STEM can become more alienated within their workspaces. “It’s almost inevitable that men tend to create groups with each other, and women tend to be left out if they don’t fit the group culture. The problem is that these normal and innocent relationships can have a strong influence, even if not entirely conscious when deciding promotions in careers,” explains Rodrigues. On this, Chávez suggests that women should learn to ignore the comments deriving from “boys clubs” and retain power as much as possible, mainly because even, “when large efforts are being made to include more women in the industry, inequality comes from the inside and the petit-organizations created by men.”

Creating gender, age, or nationality exclusive groups is something humans have historically had hardwired and normalized. Their creation can either create empowering tribes or alienate and make others more vulnerable. Additionally, Kiley explains how male cliques have a psychological effect on how women and men perceive themselves and their capabilities or expertise: “A woman takes 10 years to say she is an expert, while men say it after 10 minutes. We are hardwired to stick to our own type, so in a way there is a natural response and cognitive bias for white, middle-aged men to hire white, middle-aged men.”

Whether it is in conference rooms in big companies, meetings in international organizations, or spaces destined for politics, women can feel the numbers. We fear the numbers when there are more men named John running large companies than women. Maybe we should change our names.

Verónica Lira is an honors graduate with a B.A. in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey, who is currently focusing on gender studies and developing student programs against gender violence. She can be reached on Twitter @vero_alo. 

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