Tesla has been sued by a female engineer who alleges that a climate of “pervasive harassment” has impeded her career advancement. This lawsuit is one more in a series of recent accusations by females against Silicon Valley technology companies.
Update: Tesla issues an official response to the lawsuit
AJ Vandermeyden, 33, whose career at Tesla began in 2013 and continues today, has come forward at a time when nondisclosure statements prohibit most internal accounting of technology sector working conditions. Among Vandermeyden’s claims are a lower salary than males at comparable job assignments, promotions based on gender rather than qualifications, and a cultural climate where a female who raises concerns becomes the object of internal human resources scrutiny.
Her complaints include male co-workers engaging in sexual harassment that goes unaddressed by human resources. Vandermeyden insists she is dedicated to Tesla, which is part of her motivation for coming forward to advocate for fair treatment and reforms. The engineer owns a Tesla Model S and has a reservation for the upcoming Tesla Model 3. “Until somebody stands up, nothing is going to change,” she said in a recent interview to The Guardian about the discrimination lawsuit she filed last year. “I’m an advocate of Tesla. I really do believe they are doing great things. That said, I can’t turn a blind eye if there’s something fundamentally wrong going on.” She acknowledges that she may face serious risks for making the public aware of her lawsuit against Tesla.
Vandermeyden’s lawyer, Therese Lawless, states that many females in similar positions choose not to speak up. “It’s very difficult for women to come forward. They’re concerned that their career is going to be hindered or jeopardized.”
Vendermeyden moved up through the Tesla ranks to a manufacturing engineering position in the general assembly department, where she was paid less than the male engineers whose position and responsibilities she had assumed. This structure of strong relative percentages wages of males to females is typical throughout the Tesla organization, where its highest paid and most prestigious positions are held by males, with only two out of thirty vice-presidents self-describing as female. In Vandermeyden’s case, it was common for her to be the only female in meetings with forty to fifty males.
She outlined how this male-centric Tesla workplace can be hostile to women and dismissive when discussions around barriers to female workplace equality are raised. The response, she says, is often: “‘We’re focused on making cars. We don’t have time to deal with all this other stuff.’”
The complaint, which was filed in autumn, 2016, alleges that, although Vandermeyden designed a solution to compensate for inadequacies in vehicle quality testing which had been overlooked by supervisors and male engineers, she was not recognized for her problem-solving at the time of performance reviews. Instead, her lawsuit claims that Tesla retaliated against her for being a “whistleblower” when she raised concerns about these cars “sold in a defective state.” The result? Males were granted positions above her, according to the complaint, which her lawyers indicate is a pattern in which she and other female engineers were denied promotions even though they were “equally or more qualified” than the males. The lawsuit outlines how Tesla denied her overtime pay, rest breaks, and meal periods when she worked in sales, as well.
She also experienced “unwelcome and pervasive harassment by men on the factory floor including but not limited to inappropriate language, whistling, and cat calls,” the lawsuit says. Objections about sexual harassment, which she raised in 2015, went unheeded. Instead, Vandermeyden was told that, in order to advance her position, she must achieve what she felt was an unattainable factory performance standard, one that was not expected of male engineers. Despite the positive performance evaluations she received, Vandermeyden concluded that her best opportunities for career advancement and overcoming institutional barriers were to transfer to the purchasing department, her current position at Tesla, Inc.
Tesla is not alone in its alleged imbalanced gender culture. Tensions at Uber emerged last week when former engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post in which she chronicled a year of work at Uber. In that narrative, she described a chaotic internal culture, a human resources department that made excuses for sexual harassment, frequent episodes where victims were blamed, and a pattern of promotions based on insider preference rather than data-driven performance. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick this week addressed a group of 100+ Uber female engineers to listen to their concerns. Kalanick offered some concessions during his meeting with the female engineers. “So I empathize with you, but I can never fully understand, and I get that. I want to root out the injustice. I want to get at the people who are making this place a bad place. And you have my commitment to make that happen.”
Vandermeyden says, “It’s shocking in this day and age that this is still a fight we have to have.” Her statement acknowledges that any company with more than 30,000 employees will necessarily have a small number of individuals who make claims against the company. Yet, “that does not mean those claims have merit,” the statement adds. “Equal pay is something that is essentially in the back of your mind every single day. You have all these data points showing how you’ve exceeded some of the predecessors and improved on the system. It wears on you.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk found himself embroiled in another employment controversy earlier this month in which an employee complained of unfair working conditions and discussed how other workers have approached the UAW about possible unionization. Musk used Twitter to wonder aloud whether that complainant was fact or fake news, a Tesla employee or a UAW shill.
Vandermeyden admits she wonders about her future at Tesla. “Half the time when I walk into work, I wonder if my badge is going to work.”