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She took on Tesla for discrimination. Now others are speaking up. 'It's too big to deny'
A female engineer who came forward with claims of harassment says she was fired in retaliation. But now other women have voiced similar concerns
Tesla had a different plan for the day.he theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was “be bold for change” in the fight for a “more gender inclusive world” – but some at
It was an opportunity for women to discover essential oils. A “health and wellness group” at the electric car company invited female staff members to an 8 March “lunch ‘n learn” about oils and how they can help improve people’s “health and happiness”, according to emails seen by the Guardian, which reveal that the proposed event was quickly met with vocal criticism. It was particularly offensive to some given that a week earlier, AJ Vandermeyden, a female engineer, had publicly accused Elon Musk’s company of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Tesla postponed the oils session. The company organized a town hall meeting on diversity for that day, which included six male executives and one woman, according to multiple attendees. At the crowded meeting at the Fremont factory, women took the microphone one-by-one and shared stories of sexual harassment, mistreatment by male managers, unfair promotion decisions and more, sources said.
Vandermeyden, who attended the meeting, thought the outpouring of comments validated her own story. But soon after, Tesla fired her, accusing her of pursuing a “miscarriage of justice” by filing a lawsuit that alleged “pervasive harassment” and pay discrimination. Testimony from the town hall – along with internal emails from Musk, and Vandermeyden’s first interview since her termination – paint a picture of a company that has struggled to respond to mounting complaints about gender discrimination and has aggressively attempted to discredit a woman who publicly criticized it .
“They just want to absolutely crush anyone who speaks up,” said Vandermeyden, 33, seated inside her attorney’s San Francisco office on a recent afternoon. “I spoke up, and I was made a sacrificial lamb for it. It’s a scary precedent.”
Vandermeyden detailed the painful experience of losing a job she loved while facing harsh personal attacks by Tesla in the media. She has come forward at a time when the tech industry is grappling with high profile sexual misconduct scandals at Uber, a prominent venture capital firm and a popular startup incubator.
Tesla, known internationally for its battery-powered vehicles and self-driving car technology, has strongly rejected Vandermeyden’s claims, saying she was terminated for “falsely attacking our company in the press”. But the flurry of criticisms that emerged at the town hall suggests that her complaints are not unique.
Musk was not at the meeting, which was attended by roughly 70-100 people, and featured comments from more than 20 women, according to Vandermeyden and another attendee. One woman described parts of the factory as a “predator zone” for harassment. 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.
Other women allegedly talked about feeling unsafe around male managers and facing sexist remarks from superiors. Women talked about being dismissed and talked over in meetings with no other female employees, and asked questions about diversity in hiring and the lack of women in leadership positions.
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.
Tesla said in an email that a Women in Tesla group hosted the event and that “executives attended because they wanted to hear directly from employees about their experiences and learn about how to improve the workplace”.
The company disputed the Guardian’s characterization of the meeting, saying: “Employees stood up to ask the executives questions, share their experiences at Tesla – both positive and negative – while others spoke of things that they believed Tesla was doing right and some came with suggestions. In some instances, employees were only looking for better collaboration with their HR business partners in general and had nothing to do with any allegations of harassment.”
The company statement said that when an employee referenced an area of the factory as a “predator zone”, it “surprised many in the room who had never heard of this term”. 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.”
Tesla also said that at the meeting, “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”.
Vandermeyden said she talked briefly about her experience at the meeting, adding: “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.”
‘They were trying to intimidate me’
Her lawsuit, filed last year, alleged that after she was hired in 2013, she was promoted to a manufacturing engineering position in a department that consisted mostly of men and where she was paid less than male engineers whose work she directly assumed.
Men were also granted positions over her, and she and other women were denied promotions despite their equal or superior qualifications, the complaint said. She also said that Tesla retaliated against her after she raised concerns about sexual harassment and catcalls she routinely faced on the factory floor.
Vandermeyden went public with her story in an interview with the Guardian in February, prompting Tesla to vehemently deny her allegations, claiming that an internal investigation concluded that there was no harassment, discrimination or retaliation.
On 23 May, Tesla announced the hiring of Gaby Toledano as the new chief people officer to oversee HR amid growing concerns about unsafe working conditions at the factory. Toledano joined as the only woman in the “c-suite”, meaning group of chief executives.
One of her first major acts was to fire Vandermeyden.
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. I’m the one who spoke up, and they’re saying, ‘One way or another, you have to leave.’ How is that right?” Vandermeyden recalled in the recent interview. Toledano’s message to her was clear, she added: “‘You can end this now or this is going to be litigation going on for years.’”
She refused to resign and was fired, she said. She has yet to return to Tesla to clean out her desk.
Tesla disputed Vandermeyden’s account of the meeting, saying: “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.”
Vandermeyden struggled to process the news and was further shocked when Tesla released a 430-word statement to the Guardian justifying the termination
“Vandermeyden was given special treatment and opportunities for advancement that were unwarranted based on her qualifications, and that negatively impacted other more qualified individuals,” the statement said, saying that she behaved in a “fundamentally false and misleading manner”. The company said she “falsely attacked” Tesla in the press, amounting to a “miscarriage of justice”, adding: “It is impossible to trust anyone after they have behaved in such a manner.”
Her lawyer, Therese Lawless, well known for fighting discrimination in Silicon Valley, said the statement was clear evidence that Tesla’s termination was retaliation for raising concerns about workplace conditions, which is her legally protected right.
In addition to saying she was not qualified for her job, Tesla has also repeatedly noted that Vandermeyden did not have an engineering degree, a fact many tech journalists have repeated in articles. But according to Vandermeyden and another Tesla employee, this is not uncommon; she said she knew of at least two male engineers in her department without a degree.
Musk’s warning to employees: don’t sue Tesla
Musk also appeared to reference Vandermeyden in a company-wide email sent two days after her termination. In the email – with the subject “Doing the right thing”, sent at 2.29am – Musk lamented the scrutiny that his company faces, saying, “The list of companies that want to kill Tesla is so long, I’ve lost track.”
As as a result, he continued, employees must work harder and faster than competitors, adding they can’t be a “jerk” in the process.
Musk did not name Vandermeyden, but went on to offer what seemed to be a thinly veiled attack on 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.”
Vandermeyden, who had not seen the email until the Guardian provided it to her, said it was painful to read: “It’s saying everything I’ve done at Tesla, all the hard work, it’s dismissing it all. It hurts because there are going to be some people who believe that.”
She also noted that she has consistently received positive performance evaluations and called his email “defamatory”.
Asked about the email, Tesla said in a statement: “This email in fact did not reference Ms Vandermeyden or her case.”
Vandermeyden said she wished that Musk would consider that “dissent isn’t disloyalty” and that her love of Tesla drove her to advocate for better working conditions. “I was never your enemy,” she said, adding: “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 recalled getting a T-shirt with Musk as a superhero when she first joined Tesla, and that it was hard to realize that “sometimes your superheroes aren’t always super”..