Tesla’s Fremont factory was described by a female employee as a “predator zone” of harassment in a meeting attended by dozens of employees, according to a bombshell report in The Guardian. Other women recalled being catcalled by male employees, feeling unsafe around male managers, and being subjected to sexist comments by their superiors, the report states.
For months, The Guardian has been tracking the case of AJ Vandermeyden, a former Tesla engineer who sued the electric automaker for “unwanted and pervasive harassment.” In her suit, Vandermeyden alleges that she and other female employees were denied promotions, paid less than their male peers, and retaliated against after making their concerns known to human resources. Several months after making her claims publicly, Vandermeyden was fired by Tesla.
She is continuing to speak out, however, and now other (albeit anonymous) female employees are corroborating her accounts of pervasive sexism and harassment at the world’s most talked-about automaker. Her story is coming to light as several Silicon Valley companies, including Uber and a handful of venture capital firms, are reeling from their own high-profile cases of sexual misconduct.
According to Vandermeyden, the meeting was the result of an outcry from female employees about an invitation to a lunch hosted by Tesla concerning “essential oils.” Some women found the invitation offensive, especially coming less than a week after Vandermeyden made her story of discrimination and harassment public.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk was not in attendance at the town hall meeting, but later sent an email to staff that made a veiled reference to Vandermeyden’s case, according to The Guardian, which has viewed the email.
“If you are part of a less represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself,” Musk wrote. “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 told The Guardian that she was saddened by Musk’s reference to her case, especially because she believed so strongly in Tesla’s mission to transition the world to sustainable energy. She also recalled receiving a T-shirt as a new employee that depicted Musk as a superhero, saying it was hard to realize that “sometimes your superheroes aren’t always super.”
For its part, Tesla is aggressively rebutting the claims made by Vandermeyden and other female employees. First, the company denies the meeting at which women described Tesla’s factory as a “predator zone” was a result of the essential oils invitation; the meeting, which was convened by a group called Women in Tesla, was already on the schedule. And the company denies any t-shirts depicting Musk as a superhero were distributed.
“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,” a spokesperson said. “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 says it has conducted an independent, third-party review of Vandermeyden’s claims and determined that they were false. The spokesperson described Vandermeyden as “someone who is intentionally trying to misconstrue the facts and paint Tesla in a negative light.”