Why? In the words of one female friend, “I’m sad that our one Steve Jobs is a fraud.” In other words: There goes our unicorn.
In Silicon Valley-speak, a unicorn is a startup valued at more than $1 billion. But the term could just as easily be used to describe a woman who has made it to the very top of a male-dominated field. Holmes was not the first woman to conquer the Valley. But a unicorn is so rare that her existence comes as a surprise, is wondrous enough that we feel compelled to celebrate her successes and to be disappointed, even guilty, when we can’t.
Also falling under that designation is newly appointed CIA director Gina Haspel, whom President Trump gleefully lauded on Twitter as “the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
Many on the right proclaimed her appointment a feminist victory. After all, shouldn’t women be rejoicing at the breaking of a glass ceiling? It certainly feels as though we should, but what do we do if we simply can’t? Haspel may be the first woman in such a prominent role, but she also enabled torture earlier in her CIA career. Trumpeting Haspel’s unicorn status allows the president and others to downplay basic truths about human dignity.
One could even add Hillary Clinton to this list of female quasi-wonders. Happily, she’s neither a fraud nor a torturer — in fact, she has been a dedicated and highly capable civil servant. But as the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party, her potential election’s historic significance made it that much easier for women to ignore her campaign’s many flaws. It’s plausible that her “first and only” status had something to do with her advisers’ willingness to defend her and defer to her at all costs. But if her party hadn’t been on a mission to protect its unicorn, it’s possible that some other Democrat could have won.
But back to Theranos. With a $500,000 fine and a 10-year ban on serving as an officer or director of a public company, Holmes likely won’t be coming back — and for good reason. After all, the people she let down weren’t just her investors; women in Silicon Valley and elsewhere were hoping for one female unicorn to finally succeed. So how do we release some of the pressure? By increasing choice. It’s not enough of a step forward to celebrate the one woman who manages to make it in a new arena, while turning a blind eye to her faults. We need to find and promote more unicorns, until they’re common enough that we don’t feel the need to protect them at all.