Female Engineer Has Sued Tesla Over Job Discrimination

Update: February 28, 2017 at 4:00 pm. Tesla has released a statement responding to this story and to the Ms. Vandermayden’s lawsuit. The full body of that statement can be found below. 

A female engineer has sued Tesla claiming the company has discriminated against her in several ways including unequal pay, access to promotions, and sexual harassment. The woman, AJ Vandermeyden, is represented in her legal action by Therese Lawless who represented former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao in her ground breaking suit against venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. That lawsuit was the first to address the pervasive pattern of negative treatment of women in tech firms in America.

female engineer has sued tesla
Photograph: Ramin Talaie for the Guardian

Just a few days ago, another female engineer outed Uber over similar claims. The idea that Silicon Valley is some sort of “Billionaire Boys Club” is deeply entrenched in the industry and a pervasive stain on the good things being accomplished there. It’s well past time for these paper billionaires to grow up.

A Dedicated Employee

First of all, Vandermayden is a dedicated employee who has worked for Tesla since 2013. She has taken  out a loan to buy a base model Tesla Model S and has reserved a Model 3. She says, “I’m an advocate of Tesla. I really do believe they are doing great things. I think they’re a revolutionary and innovative company. That said, I can’t turn a blind eye if there’s something fundamentally wrong going on.”

What sorts of things? In her suit, she claims she discovered defective practices on the assembly line where she worked, things that her male cohorts failed to notice. Even though she devised corrective actions, the men were credited with the improvements and her part in the process was ignored. When she raised concerns that cars were being built that contained defects, she was branded a “whistleblower” and punished by management.

Equal Pay Is An Issue

She also says she was paid less than male colleagues. “Equal pay is something that is essentially in the back of your mind every single day,” she says.. “You have all these data points showing how you’ve exceeded some of the predecessors and improved on the system. It wears on you.” At one point, management told her she would need to achieve production goals that were higher than those expected of male employees in order to qualify for promotions.

Then there is the usual array of vaguely hostile and disturbing actions by male colleagues at work — cat calls, hooting, foot stomping, and generally boorish behavior that has been the hallmark of men with below average intelligence for centuries. She says Tesla has a dearth of female managers and executives and describes often being in meetings with 40 other people where she is the only woman in the room. Out of more than 30 vice presidents, only two are women. Every senior management position is held by a man.

Vandermayuden first filed a formal complaint with the company last fall but her concerns have not been adequately addressed and so she found it necessary to take the next step. Naturally, she is nervous about how taking a stand will impact her job and her career. “Half the time when I walk into work, I wonder if my badge is going to work,” she says.

Difficult For Women To Come Forward

Her attorney says, “It’s very difficult for women to come forward. They’re concerned that their career is going to be hindered or jeopardized.” Human resources departments are often more interested in protecting the company than advocating for workers’ rights. “Most of my clients come in and say, ‘human resources isn’t helping me. They’re just protecting the company.’”

Ellen Pao suffered a vicious attack from the online community after she brought her lawsuit. In fact, things got so ugly and so personal that she resigned her position at Reddit. She spoke last year with Katie Couric about the pervasive culture of sexism in Silicon Valley. “When you get to a point where it’s so baked into every aspect of every process and it’s a big company and you’re part of a process, it becomes very hard to unwind all of it,” Pao told CNBC recently. “You change one thing, and it manifests into problems in other areas. It’s hard to undo all those impacts of homogeneous culture at once.”

Tesla Responds

Tesla has responded with this insipid and dismissive statement: “As with any company with more than 30,000 employees, it is inevitable that there will be a small number of individuals who make claims against the company, but that does not mean those claims have merit.” Come on, Elon. That’s your response? Blame the victim?

Elon Musk may be Tony Stark, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford all rolled into one, but that doesn’t insulate him from having human failings. He is known for taking revenge on those who annoy him, like the fellow who once dared to complain that the Model X launch event was poorly organized (PS. It was.). Musk took it upon himself to personally cancel the man’s order for a Model X — a petty and childish act that painted him in an unfavorable light.

When a worker at the Fremont factory recently went public with complaints about working conditions, pay, and hours. Elon’s first response was to fire off a Tweet accusing the man of being a union stooge who actually worked for the UAW, not Tesla. Only later did he learn the man had actually worked for Tesla for 4½ years. After a hasty inquiry, Musk sent all employees an e-mail promising them that all their concerns were being met and they would soon have the benefit of frozen yogurt stands scattered throughout the factory — something those people in the UAW don’t have.

Time For Elon Musk

Elon, I have news for you. The culture of every organization reflects the attitudes and biases of its leaders. Silicon Valley is not the only place that has a problem treating women with dignity and respect. Statistics are not the only relevant information in any discussion, but some reports show that 25% of all women in the military are victims of sexual assault and up to 80% have suffered sexual harassment. It is hard to think of a culture that is more male dominated than the military but Silicon Valley seems to be in the conversation for second place.

So Elon, before you utter pious mouthings about “a small number of individuals,” look within yourself. You owe it to the people working for you to set the example, not only for Tesla but for all of Silicon Valley. AJ Vandermayden says when she brought up her concerns to management, the response was, “We’re focused on making cars. We don’t have time to deal with all this other stuff.” They may not have gotten that idea directly from your lips, but attitudes filter down from the top.

If you don’t know what is being said in your name then you had better find out. If you tolerate a culture that makes women less valued than men, you are sowing the seeds of your own destruction. More than 50% of all car buying decisions are made by women, something former GM CEO Roger Smith was well aware of when he started the Saturn division.

Take your brilliant mind off boring holes in the earth, building colonies on Mars, and revolutionizing the automobile and utility industries for a moment. Pay attention to those who are trying to tell you something. You are not the only person in the universe with an original idea. If you persist in letting your company mistreat the women who work there, you will be little different than the braying jackass in the White House who disparages any and all not blessed with being white males by accident of birth.

Time to put on your big boy pants, Elon, and take personal responsibility for the organization you have created. To do less will diminish you in the eyes of many who expect great things from you.

Source: The Guardian

Update. Tesla has released the following statement regarding this story.

“Tesla is committed to creating a positive workplace environment that is free of discrimination for all our employees. Ms. Vandermeyden joined Tesla in a sales position in 2013, and since then, despite having no formal engineering degree, she has sought and moved into successive engineering roles, beginning with her work in Tesla’s paint shop and eventually another role in General Assembly. Even after she made her complaints of alleged discrimination, she sought and was advanced into at least one other new role, evidence of the fact that Tesla is committed to rewarding hard work and talent, regardless of background. When Ms. Vandermeyden first brought her concerns to us over a year ago, we immediately retained a neutral third party, Anne Hilbert of EMC2Law, to investigate her claims so that, if warranted, we could take appropriate action to address the issues she raised. After an exhaustive review of the facts, the independent investigator determined that Ms. Vandermeyden’s “claims of gender discrimination, harassment, and retaliation have not been substantiated.” Without this context, the story presented in the original article is misleading.” 






Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.