AJ Vandermeyden is a woman who was fired by Tesla after she had the audacity to file a lawsuit against Tesla. In her complaint to the court, she alleges that, among other things, the company tolerates a culture in which sexual harassment of women is the norm. One of her female colleagues describes parts of the Tesla factory as a “predator zone.”
Elon Musk Is A Flawed Genius
Let’s say it right up front. Elon Musk is a genius — a brilliant mind who can stand toe to toe with the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He has almost singlehandedly forced sweeping changes in the field of electric cars, EV infrastructure, space travel, storage batteries, and a dozen other areas.
He is also a thin-skinned leader who is more than willing to hit back hard at his critics, including Vandermeyden. One of the first public signs of his predilection for petulance emerged just after the official launch party for the Tesla Model X. The event was chaotic. Hundreds of guests were herded into overflow rooms where they were expected to watch the proceedings remotely. Musk was an hour late getting it started.
One guest, Stewart Alsop, a venture capitalist, was so annoyed about how poorly the event was organized he published a scathing article in response. Musk and Alsop reportedly then had a phone conversation, and then Musk personally cancelled Alsop’s order for a Model X, calling him a “super rude customer.”
Unequal Pay Coupled With Cat Calls
Vandermeyden says she was paid less than male colleagues for the same work and denied opportunities for advancement because of her gender. As a result of her complaints, Tesla hired a woman, Gaby Toledano, to be the new chief human relations officer.
When Toledano asked for a meeting with Vandermeyden over Memorial Day weekend, Vandermeyden assumed it was the first step along a path to 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,” a report in the Guardian claims. Vandermeyden wouldn’t sign the agreement offered to her by Toledano and was fired then and there.
Put Up Or Shut Up
Vandermeyden tells the Guardian, “It felt like they were trying to intimidate me. I’m the one who spoke up, and they’re saying, ‘One way or another, you have to leave.’ How is that right?” She says Toledano’s message to her was clear: “You can end this now or this is going to be litigation going on for years.”
Tesla has a different version of the story. It told the Guardian in a statement, “Gaby did not intimidate Ms Vandermeyden. She disagrees that there was any intimidation, nor did Ms Vandermeyden ever express feeling intimidated during the meeting. In fact, they both had a positive rapport and expressed mutual support, as Gaby was new to her role at Tesla and was attempting to resolve the matter in a positive and mutually supportive manner for the company and for Ms Vandermeyden.”
The statement goes on to say, “Vandermeyden was given special treatment and opportunities for advancement that were unwarranted based on her qualifications, and that negatively impacted other more qualified individuals.” It continues by saying she has conducted herself in a “fundamentally false and misleading manner.” Tesla says she has “falsely attacked” the company in the press, behavior that amounts to a “miscarriage of justice,” according to the company. “It is impossible to trust anyone after they have behaved in such a manner.”
Is There Sexual Harassment At Tesla?
So, what is really going on inside Tesla? An internal company meeting organized by a group called Women in Tesla came one week after Vandermeyden was fired. As many as 100 female employees were in attendance and over 20 spoke up.
One said she felt unsafe in the presence of some supervisors and often was the target of sexist remarks from people higher up the chain of command. “When the moderator asked women in the room if they had ever been catcalled, a significant number of women raised their hands, according to Vandermeyden,” the Guardian reports.
Vandermeyden found the meeting hopeful. “It was finally giving women a venue to voice what was going on. 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.”
Generic Corporate Jargon
“Some of the executives seemed genuinely concerned and taken aback by the women’s comments. One male leader said it was unacceptable, noting that he had daughters, said Vandermeyden.
“One female manager, who was present but no longer works for Tesla, told the Guardian she was offended by that comment: ‘It’s insulting. You shouldn’t have to have daughters to know this.’ She said executives’ responses to questions about diversity were generic and filled with corporate jargon.”
What was the response beyond the meeting? Did the message that more than 20 women sent the company lead to a significant change in policy?
“Immediately after the meeting, Tesla said it sent a factory-wide message to supervisors about its ‘strict policy against any kind of harassment’, adding, ‘Any complaints of catcalling in the factory are thoroughly investigated and action is taken where necessary.'”
In the email to the Guardian, Tesla also reportedly wrote, “there was a lot of energy around ensuring we are proactively sourcing diverse talent and ensuring that we have an interview and assessment process that is free from bias.” Gee, no generic corporate jargon there, is there?
Elon Weighs In
And where is Elon Musk in all this? Two days after Vandermeyden was fired, he sent a company wide email entitled, “Doing the right thing.” Musk told his employees, “The list of companies that want to kill Tesla is so long, I’ve lost track.” He exhorted them to work harder and faster than people at competing companies, but to not act like a “jerk.”
The email then continued, “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.”
When the Guardian asked about that email, it was told by the company, “This email in fact did not reference Ms Vandermeyden or her case.” Yeah, right. And we’re supposed to believe that?
Incidentally, Vandermeyden hadn’t seen this email until the Guardian, which had received it via other sources, shared it with her. Needless to say, it wasn’t uplifting, and was even painful.
They Absolutely Want To Crush You
Vandermeyden says, “They just want to absolutely crush anyone who speaks up. I spoke up and I was made a sacrificial lamb for it. It’s a scary precedent.” She is devastated by how the company has treated her. She thinks Elon doesn’t fully understand that “dissent isn’t disloyalty.” She also says that, actually, “her love of Tesla drove her to advocate for better working conditions,” as the Guardian paraphrases.
“I was never your enemy,” she says. “I still believe in the importance of transitioning the world to sustainable energy, but now I don’t get to be a part of it.” She still has a T shirt she got when she first started working at Tesla with a picture of Elon Musk portrayed as a superhero. It’s hard to learn and accept, she says, that “sometimes your superheroes aren’t always super.
Let’s Give Women A Chance
Sexual harassment is present throughout society but it seems particularly virulent in the tech industry. It feels like there’s shocking news in this vein coming out of tech world every week or two.
The tech world doesn’t seem to understand that women are just as brilliant and just as gifted as men when it comes to innovation and may even have advantages companies could take advantage of if they simply would bury old stereotypes about gender roles and attitudes. In the final analysis, excluding women hobbles any industry and deprives society of 50% of the available talent pool — talent that will be vitally important to solving the complex issues presented by climate change and global warming.
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