It’s been over four months since former Tesla engineer AJ Vandermeyden filed a lawsuit against her old company alleging sexual harassment and pay discrimination. More details are beginning to emerge that allege the electric car company as suffering from a more widespread culture that routinely holds its female employees back and allows male managers to mistreat them.
A new report published in The Guardian illustrates how the company nixed a “lunch ‘n learn” for female employees just a week after Vandermeyden filed her suit. The company decided to organize a town hall meeting on diversity instead, in which several women shared stories of suffering from sexual harassment and discriminatory practices within the company.
Vandermeyden actually attended that meeting but was soon fired by Tesla. The Guardian report includes emails that appear to illustrate an inability by company CEO Elon Musk and his team to properly and aggressively deal with gender discrimination at the car company. In fact, the same emails seem to suggest a campaign to discredit Vandermeyden, and others who raised similar concerns were instead well underway.
The Tesla lawsuit describes much worse. At the town hall meeting, for example, one woman described certain parts of the company’s factory as a “predator zone” for sexual harassment at the hands of male employees. Many women said they had been catcalled at work. Some described feeling unsafe around male managers and aggravations around being passed up for promotions.
Tesla told The Guardian that after the meeting the company issued a message to employees about its “strict policy against any kind of harassment … Any complaints of catcalling in the factory are thoroughly investigated and action is taken where necessary.”
Vandermeyden was encouraged by the meeting and how it lent support to her claims made in the lawsuit. “It was finally giving women a venue to voice what was going on,” she said. “It felt like Tesla had been saying I’m making all this up. And here were all the women saying, ‘No, it’s happening.’ It’s too big to deny.”
Nevertheless, Tesla seems to have worked tirelessly since then to discredit her. On May 23, Tesla hired Gaby Toledano as the new chief people officer to oversee HR. Toledano would be the one to fire Vandermeyden. According to the Guardian:
“Toledano asked Vandermeyden to meet for coffee one-on-one without lawyers on 29 May, the Memorial Day holiday. Vandermeyden said she thought it was an opportunity to discuss ways to improve the workplace and address her concerns, but instead she was told she could resign and get a severance package or she would be terminated immediately and should not show up for work the next day.”
“It felt like they were trying to intimidate me,” said Vandermeyden. “I’m the one who spoke up, and they’re saying, ‘One way or another, you have to leave.’ How is that right?”
Musk, for his part, seems to have played a strong role in this approach. Two days after Vandermeyden’s firing, he shot off a company-wide email with the subject line, “Doing the right thing,” and seems to have made a veiled reference to Vendermeyden and her lawsuit:
”If you are part of a less represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla where someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.”
Tesla disputes the Musk email had anything to do with Vandermeyden, telling The Guardian that “this email in fact did not reference Ms Vandermeyden or her case.”
Vandermeyden has an uphill battle to fight, and it’s unclear whether the culture at Tesla has improved since her departure. “They just want to absolutely crush anyone who speaks up,” Vandermeyden told The Guardian. “I spoke up, and I was made a sacrificial lamb for it. It’s a scary precedent.”
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