For the past decade or so, women with big ideas (and big funding) have quickly become the new big thing. They are special guests at galas, they moderate A-list panels, they win visionary awards, and they grace the covers of glossy magazines replete with headlines that all but endorse their plans to “revolutionize" the way something is done.
This frenzied media ecosystem which grooms these women as idols of boy band proportions is also one quick to tear them down the minute there are whisperings of a dishy scandal. The media mentors and press mongers of yesterday quickly delete mentions of these founders from their websites, removing them from their “Top 10" lists and printing terse retractions. They follow up on their adulatory stories with pieces that dig deeply into “What Went Wrong," and how these companies “Went From Billions to Zero." It's a crazed cycle of audience-seeking journalism and it seems to begin and end with entrepreneurship in the competitive world of mainstream media.
“There as so few women CEOs, that everything they do is under a microscope," says Jeffery Tobias Halter, a corporate gender strategist with numerous Fortune 500 clients, and President of YWomen. “Basically 450 men in the Fortune 500 can perform badly but few get noticed. I think the same is true in start-ups and with high-flying entrepreneurs."
Of course the first example that comes to mind is Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of not-as-revolutionary-as-we-thought healthcare company, Theranos, who is in serious hot water after a much publicized fall from grace. The well-spoken blonde executive, who famously dropped out of Stanford to see through her childhood dream of changing the world, has been slammed by the magazines that used to worship her. In fact, the now pulverized company's first unraveling thread was pulled by The Wall Street Journal, the very publication that had built her up previously in pieces that celebrated her visionary business promising customers the ability to run costly blood tests though a pin prick's worth of blood at (and at a fraction of the cost). Kudos to stealthy reporter John Carreyrou for exposing the fact that the promise was undeliverable, and more than that, may have lead to misdiagnosed prescriptions and even potential deaths, but the question must be asked: Why did it take 13 years, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and millions of blood tests being administered before a journalist went beyond lazily re-publishing the inspiring startup story (which was being told to anyone who would listen) to look deeper into the company's Utopian claims?
The publishing industry uses these female founders and their compelling stories as clickbait, then relishes in their downfall, as it offers a dramatic new angle and opportunity to sell content.
“Magazine editors do not have the bandwidth to investigate the business of every entrepreneur and look at the balance sheets," says a media professional who specializes in the publishing industry. “The problem is there is a narrative created by a company's public relations teams that are toting these unreal valuations and many editors take the claims at face value to get a good story out of it. Magazines are trying to sell themselves in a difficult climate for traditional publications."
T New York Times's style magazine was another publication that built up Elizabeth Holmes as one of its greats. The publication listed Holmes as one of the "Five Visionary Tech Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World," writing that she "may be starting a movement to change the health care paradigm as we know it." Once the investigation into the business went underway, the magazine updated its website with a disclaimer that read there were "recent developments" involving Theranos, linking to a new investigative piece by the Times. According to one media professional familiar with the case, the retraction was something of a stain for T and for its editor Deborah Needleman. In addition to being featured on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, Glamour Magazine went so far as to name Holmes one of its “Woman Of The Year" in 2015.
Courtesy of Glamour
According to the female-focused magazine's story about Holmes: “By now the tech-world unicorn story is well-known: Bright mind ditches school, launches company from garage, changes the world, makes millions. This version of the tale, though, has a welcome twist: The wunderkind dropout is a woman."
Clearly, the magazine was hungry for an inspiring young girl boss in health tech, and there was Holmes, ripe for the picking. “I believe women (and many men) are actually hoping they do succeed and shatter the existing paradigms of leadership that we have in this country," says Halter, underscoring the point that publications can't help but jump on the inspiring startup stories, even if they turn out to be too good to be true. Of course, both male and female leaders are sometimes unsuccessful in their bids to launch world-changing businesses. So, again, why does media continue overpromising?
While the intense media scrutiny may have been justified in the case of Holmes, it cannot be denied that journalists are also quick to jump on stories that are less so. Take the case of beauty box subscription maven, Katia Beauchamp, a celebrated innovator who found her name dragged through the media mud when her company was re-strategizing, and making layoffs in June, 2016. Article headlines like “Struggling Online Makeup Retailer Birchbox Cuts More Staff" emerged, written by reporters who didn't have a complete understanding of what was happening behind closed doors. Despite the growing pains, the Birchbox business has bounced back, enjoying 1 million subscribers, 800 brand partners and operates in six countries.
“Every year magazines look for the top women with lists like '30 Under 30' and that's part of the problem," says one media expert. “Media is turning them into celebrities and so they're being watched very closely. It's the same with television. You see the same faces gracing all the morning shows, one after the other."
The lack of creativity in reporting cannot be overlooked as a reason for the copycat cover girls we see time and time again. It takes much more time and resources to investigate a story and report on your findings then it does to re-write a company-approved press release.
“There is a lack of original ideas, and the result is the same stories appearing over and over across publications," says the media expert. “Without thinking creatively, reporters are beholden to the PR machine."
When journalists take their story ideas from public relations firms, the result is articles that give founders a soapbox for their sensational claims to revolutionize entire industries. While these promises may work in the boardroom to woo investors, they are not necessarily reflective of what a startup is actually capable of. In many ways, by building up these female founders as unicorns, the media is setting them up to fail, as even minor setbacks are seen as a “fall from grace."
Thinx founder Miki Argrawal, is the newest female founder to find herself under media fire with claims that she acted inappropriately in the workplace, making suggestive remarks to employees among other allegations. Of course, if these claims are true, it is certainly condemnable, but what about due process? Shouldn't founders be given the benefit of the doubt until a crime is actually proven? Without a doubt, the idea of a female boss being part of a sexual harassment case makes an entertaining storyline for editors.
“In the example of Thinx you have former CEO Miki Agrawal who is not only a self-proclaimed feminist, selling products to women, but she is being accused of actually groping women in the workplace," says Halter. “Regarding press and public reaction I think many people expect women to just behave better. You rarely see a scandal involving women. Literally everyday there is another sexual harassment lawsuit or gender inequity issue caused by some male leader. Sadly, men behaving badly is rarely new news."
This double-edged sword is without a doubt one of the reasons women face much more scrutiny in the media. In certain ways, men acting badly is expected, but when it happens to women, it's headline news.
“The double bind dilemma is like a Goldilocks effect; women who are too soft are considered wimps and women who are too tough are considered witches," says Halter. “There is a small sweet spot of being 'just right'. Male leaders can be bullies and belligerent but they are called hard-nosed and demanding. Quiet male leaders are seen as thoughtful and introspective. There is a huge double standard that men do not face. This is heightened by the media. How many stories do you read about women that either references their appearance or clothing somewhere in the article? You never read 'John was particularly dapper in his blue suit.' Finally, the media typically also raises issues of women around their families. I have seen many executive women being asked 'as you become CEO who will take care of your children?' I've never seen a male leader asked that question."
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.