Few years back, I was teaching a seminar on trust at University of Iceland’s Department of Philosophy. Our last meeting was an evening session at my home where all the participating students gave a short talk on a trust issue. It was a remarkable and memorable evening with excellent presentations. However, one student’s talk was particularly impressive and stuck to my mind. His talk was on the curious case of Elizabeth Holmes and the shocking story of her company, Theranos. At the time, this story was not very well known, and we all sat astonished listening to the student’s account of Ms. Holmes misadventures. The topic was obviously spot on in a seminar on trust. Is it sufficient to change one’s appearance with a black turtleneck and a deeper voice in order to create trust?

In recent years, we have heard a lot about Ms. Holmes and the company’s tribulations. Personally, I have used her story in countless lectures on business ethics and professional ethics. This history is perhaps not unique in the sense that we have seen the main ingredients where everything is done to succeed, and critics are silenced with a shrug and claims that the critics are simply too cognitively limited to understand the greatness of what is going on. Still, there is something particularly fascinating about this story of a young woman who began with such high ambitions and probably good intentions. Elizabeth Holmes seems not to have started her company to misuse the trust of those who invested in her endeavor – the original idea could have benefitted so many people if it had been realized. The fact is that it did not, and now we have popular TV series and countless podcasts devoted to this story. When I mention Ms. Holmes in a lecture today, I do not have to start by giving an account of what took place.

Even though I like to think that I am particularly well acquainted with the story, it was only very recently I heard about one important result of the Theranos scandal. This result is that young women have found it extremely hard to succeed in entrepreneurship in the US since the news broke out that Theranos went bust. Young female entrepreneurs are seen as of one and the same type and Ms. Holmes lack of trustworthiness has been projected on other young female entrepreneurs. In other words, for a period of time Elizabeth Holmes became a stereotype of young women trying to succeed in the world  of venture capital and this stereotype projected to others of the same gender and age.

This story has been on my mind in recent months as I have been involved in implementing an Erasmus+ funded project which has the aim of helping students of a certain age to both identify and dismantle gender-based stereotypes. We call the project Diogenes and at its core is the development of digital laboratories where students use story-board canvas to bring up stereotypical situations and then critically reflect on their use of stereotypes in their narratives.

In recent years, I have frequently mentioned stereotypes in my lectures, and it seems as if I have countless Power Point slides that introduce what they are and why we use them. However, most of the slides only mention stereotypes as a rhetorical device; with good reason – the examples of stereotyping in political discourse have been piling up recently. One could in fact argue that with the rise of populist politics, the use of stereotyping is the most common, or popular, political rhetorical device today. This should not come as a surprise. The use of stereotypes is probably the most potent of such devices, in particular if used in a combination of other such devices.

The Diogenes project has pushed me to look at stereotyping in a wider perspective. Stereotyping is not only about its potential as a potent rhetorical device. Its main threat comes from the part it plays in many common logical fallacies and heuristics. One could even say that stereotyping plays an essential part in our shared human ability to make judgements and frame opinions without having sufficient knowledge of what we are talking about. To put it bluntly, we use stereotypes to make a mental shortcut and free us from spending time on finding relevant facts.

If this is the case, is it realistic to get rid of stereotyping in our thought processes? The Diogenes project’s aim is perhaps not to eliminate stereotypes from how we approach the world. The aim is to help students to use them more sparingly. We hope that students will learn to ask themselves whether stereotyping is always appropriate or even necessary. And we hope that they will learn how to critically reflect on their own narratives by asking themselves the most relevant questions. Furthermore, the project wants to find out if some cultural backgrounds find it more demanding than other not to rely too much on stereotypes. Will, for example, students in Turkey find it harder than students in Sweden to limit the use of gender-based stereotypes?

It may be hard to accept that it is very unlikely that we will be able to get rid of stereotyping in our storytelling. One reason is simply that they play an essential role in humorous approaches to the perils of human existence. Many important notions and concepts are based on – or connected to – stereotypes and it is impossible to leave them completely out of our inter-personal communication. But we can limit our use of them, and, perhaps, find ways to get rid of a harmful and unwarranted stereotyping. What Diogenes wants to achieve is to get students to be conscious not to let stereotyping govern or control their thought even though they occasionally succumb to the temptation of using them. The important task in the contemporary political environment is to make young people learn to see individuals as individuals and to learn to form opinions on them on sufficient grounds. Otherwise, we will miss out on an important understanding what individuals really can do and what competences they have. Simply relying on anecdotes or previous (and limited experience) about similar people is not going to help us in a significant way when we need to form an informed opinion on someone. Venture capitalists in California may have lost out on important opportunities few years back when Elizabeth Holmes became the reference point of young female entrepreneurs. A young girl who starts to believe in a stereotype of what she can and cannot do will similarly miss out on countless opportunities in her future.

Henry Alexander Henrysson

This article is a translation of an article originally published in Icelandic in the Stundin Magazine (print version November 11, 2022; online version November 20, 2022).