• Thu. Oct 6th, 2022

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Five former SpaceX employees speak out about harassment at the company

A group of former SpaceX employees are coming forward about their experience working at the commercial rocket company, claiming that there is a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace and that managers and the human resources department handled complaints poorly.

The individuals are speaking out in light of an essay published by one former employee, Ashley Kosak, who left SpaceX in November. In her account, Kosak details multiple instances of being groped and feeling uncomfortable after fending off sexual advances by her male co-workers. Four additional people who spoke with The Verge described their own troubling experiences at SpaceX or witnessing other women and nonbinary people being harassed. In three cases reviewed by The Verge, SpaceX HR was made aware of the allegations and had inconsistent responses that the employees felt were inadequate.

“SpaceX as an organization values the mission over employee wellness to the extent that I never saw meaningful action taken against individuals who committed acts of sexual harassment,” one former employee said, adding that she felt SpaceX’s lack of action was driven by management’s desire to avoid work disruptions.

Kosak decided to come forward publicly with her story in order to help others in the space industry realize that any harassment they might be experiencing should not be tolerated. “I think until someone finally says, ‘This is unacceptable,’ you find a way mentally to accept that it’s okay,” Kosak tells The Verge. “I hope that this essay helps bring to light that a lot of behaviors that are happening out there are not okay.” The essay was published in Lioness, a platform for whistleblowers to report on workplace misconduct.

In the essay, Kosak, who worked as a build reliability engineer in Cape Canaveral, Florida, alleges that a colleague grabbed her butt when she first started at the company and describes another incident where she says a different colleague ran his hand over her chest during a team bonding event. She claims that multiple men from the company would DM her and make sexual advances toward her, sometimes calling her in the middle of the night. One colleague apparently even came over to her house and tried to touch her multiple times, despite her pleas to stay professional. Kosak says she reported all of these incidents to either her superiors or to HR, but people rarely followed up on her complaints and her alleged perpetrators suffered no repercussions.

Kosak also says she witnessed other women dealing with similar issues at SpaceX. “Some of the men who work at SpaceX hug women without consent, stare at women while they work, and interpret every social encounter as an opportunity to date (or hit on) women in the office,” Kosak wrote in the essay.

Though Kosak is the lone author on the essay, The Verge spoke with four additional people who used to work for SpaceX, all of whom claimed to have experienced similar types of treatment or witnessed other women and nonbinary people dealing with harassment at the company. These former employees agree that SpaceX is a bit of a “boys’ club,” as one former employee put it, and say they were part of a very small group of women and nonbinary people working at the company. That made them feel severely outnumbered. The former employees also believe the company is reluctant to hold some men accountable for bad behavior, especially if those men have put in a lot of time at SpaceX or have contributed great things to the company.

One woman who used to work as an intern at SpaceX, Julia CrowleyFarenga, filed a lawsuit against the company in 2020, alleging that a manager retaliated against her after she reported harassment from one of her other managers, ultimately blocking her from being hired at SpaceX when her internship ended.

Another woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, described an instance during her internship when a senior SpaceX technician repeatedly tried to open her locked door and enter her room in internship housing, while he was demonstrably intoxicated. Another former SpaceX intern said a male co-worker made inappropriate comments about their appearance and saw others experience similar behavior. “All four of the women or nonbinary people in my room, separately, were harassed during our internships,” the individual tells The Verge. “And that was a really upsetting experience.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations, nor did the company respond to a request for details about its sexual harassment policy. However this weekend, after Lioness reached out to the company about Kosak’s essay, Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, sent a company-wide email to SpaceX employees, reminding them of the company’s “no A-hole” policy and that harassment will not be tolerated. She also encouraged people to report any harassment they might experience.

“Timely reporting of harassment is key to our maintaining SpaceX as a great place to work; we can’t fix what we don’t know,” Shotwell wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Verge.If you are aware of, or experience any acts of harassment or discrimination, report it to your manager or any HR representative.”

The email also claims that SpaceX will be taking a closer look at its HR practices moving forward. “We also know we can always do better,” Shotwell wrote in the email. “That is why HR has been soliciting feedback from groups across the company to ensure the process is effective. HR will also conduct an internal audit, followed by a third-party audit.”

In her essay, Kosak said she did meet with HR on a few occasions throughout her time with the company but says that no meaningful action was taken. She also says she presented HR with a proposed framework for addressing sexual harassment, one that told people how to report their harassment and the kinds of repercussions that employees who engage in inappropriate behavior might expect. However, there was never any meaningful follow-up on her proposal.

Finally, in October, she decided to submit an “anonymous” tip to the company’s Ethics and Compliance tip line, addressed to Gwynne Shotwell. In her tip, a copy of which was provided to The Verge, she detailed her frustrations with HR.

I am reaching out to you because the HR department has done absolutely nothing to resolve these issues, and in cases where engineering leaders have come together to bring to HR the list of changes necessary, they forced us to [put] in over 10 hours of work updating their training…. then nothing happened. Then I got harassed. Then these people got promoted.

The submission document for the tip was a Microsoft form, which ultimately revealed Kosak’s identity. Kosak says she then received a call from HR, confronting her about the allegations in the tip. During the call, which Kosak recorded and shared with The Verge, representatives asked her if she was the one who submitted the tip or knew who submitted it. She was asked to come up with solutions for HR to implement.

Afterward, Kosak spoke with a supervisor who set her up with a meeting with Shotwell and the company’s head of HR, Brian Bjelde. During the meeting, Kosak says, Shotwell and Bjelde claimed to have never heard of her complaints and asked her to propose solutions for how to fix SpaceX’s harassment reporting process. She suggested conducting a third-party investigation, in an email obtained by The Verge.

After that meeting, Kosak had a follow-up call with HR, during which she was asked to detail her allegations again, and again asked for ideas on how to fix the harassment reporting process. She suggested that there be some kind of matrix of repercussions for harassing behavior, which the HR representatives seemed reluctant to implement, suggesting that this information was too private to discuss openly in the company.

It wasn’t the first time that Kosak had presented a plan to upper management. She had previously presented her own environmental plan to Elon Musk, detailing how to make SpaceX carbon neutral by 2030. Musk ultimately dismissed the idea, saying that SpaceX relies on some wind and solar energy, Kosak claims. Kosak also presented the Starlink team with an “environmental compliance initiative” that was deemed too ambitious by the people she presented it to, she says.

“Men here are allowed to get promoted despite a clear disrespect for the requirements of their authority,” Kosak wrote in her original tip to Shotwell. “Women who have worked despite the many blockades on the path to joining this company get called ‘Too Ambitious’.” The day before Kosak’s essay was published, Musk tweeted that SpaceX plans to start an initiative to capture carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into rocket fuel.

Due to the stress at work, Kosak took a leave of absence in November before quitting 10 days later. She received a phone call from HR during her leave and then two more after she left permanently. She did not answer the phone calls.

Kosak’s experiences with HR are mirrored by the experiences of another former employee of SpaceX, the female intern who dealt with a technician trying to enter her locked room. One night, a bunch of drunk technicians showed up at the house she was staying in at Vandenberg Village, near one of SpaceX’s launch sites, according to the former intern. The house was internship housing provided by SpaceX. One drunk technician, she says, repeatedly tried to enter her room, asking her if she was naked because she had just gotten out of the shower. She then came downstairs, where she says the technician tried to hug her and made obscene comments about women and her appearance. She then says she hid behind her couch, too scared to go back to her room because she thought he might follow her up there.

The day after the incident, the former intern says that an HR manager reached out to her about what had happened. The HR manager, she says, had heard about the incident from another individual who was present. She says after the meeting with HR, the technician confronted the intern at work and told her he was just teasing her. He also told her he was worried that he might lose his job. Fearing that she would not be hired on a permanent basis for speaking out, she did not fully cooperate with the HR investigation, as she had to continue working with the technician.

Later, after leaving the launch site where her internship was based, she did report all the details to HR. The HR manager would not tell her what actions had been taken, citing confidentiality and the fact that she was previously uncooperative with their initial investigation. However, the HR representative said the company did make one change to internship housing guidelines, and that employees of different genders would not share bathrooms anymore. She ultimately did not receive a job offer, and the technician continued to work at SpaceX.

CrowleyFarenga, another former intern who filed a lawsuit against SpaceX which has since been resolved privately and dismissed, felt she was retaliated against even though she was reluctant to speak about her harassment. In her lawsuit, she alleged that her manager would comment that she was talking to too many men, even though she was one of very few women on the team, and that she should be careful about who she spoke to, lest people get the wrong impression about her. He would also apparently spend much more time with her during one-on-one meetings than her male colleagues. When she eventually reported his behavior, she was moved to another team but says she suddenly started receiving bad reviews. Ultimately, she learned that the person she reported the harassment to blocked her from getting hired after her internship ended.

“What they care more about is work than work culture,” CrowleyFarenga says of SpaceX. “And if female employees are being negatively impacted, and if their work suffers, well, that’s too bad because this guy’s really good.”

The third former SpaceX intern who spoke with The Verge says they did receive a response from HR after a co-worker made an inappropriate comment to them over email about their Halloween costume. However, they saw plenty of people dealing with inappropriate behavior from co-workers that went unaddressed. The former employee recounted the experience of another woman at SpaceX who shared a cubicle with a man who would joke about putting porn on their shared TV and who made uncomfortable abortion jokes. Another female roommate of the employee wound up switching to a different team because of a team member’s unwanted advances.

All of the former employees who spoke with The Verge believe SpaceX’s failure to adequately address inappropriate behavior in the workplace stems from a larger problem with the company’s culture that devalues individual workers. All of them felt that culture comes from upper management, notably from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Kosak argues in the essay that Musk “uses engineers as a resource to be mined rather than a team to be led.” They all say burnout is high at the company, and that everyone is dedicated to the mission of exploring space. Any distractions from that mission are seen as something to eliminate, they argue, even if it’s an employee reporting harassment.

Ultimately, they see it as a big factor in why women leave the field of aerospace, and why the field continues to be dominated by men. The former employees hope that by sharing their stories, they’ll encourage other women to speak up. Along with the publication of Kosak’s essay, Lioness is also auctioning an NFT, the proceeds of which will go toward bringing more workplace harassment stories in the space industry and other fields to light.

But most of all, the employees hope that women will feel safe in the field of aerospace someday. “I want women in aerospace to be able to be happy in the field and stay for decades and decades and contribute just like men do without being pushed out by issues that don’t get responded to,” says CrowleyFarenga. “I want them to be able to reach their full potential, which is what’s not happening because of misbehavior from men.”