by Douglas Messier
Former SpaceX engineer Ashley Kosak has published an essay alleging rampant sexual harassment at Elon Musk’s space company, portraying a dysfunctional company where management is unwilling to respond to complaints or to discipline offenders.
The essay was published as seven women filed sexual harassment lawsuits against Tesla Motors, which is another company where Musk serves as CEO. The suits have accused the automaker of “fostering a culture of sexual harassment” against women. In October, Tesla was ordered to pay $137 million in damages to a former African American worker who alleged in a lawsuit he was subjected to racial discriminator and slurs “straight from the Jim Crow era.” Tesla has disputed the claims and is appealing the judgment.
In her essay published by Lioness, Kosak said she incidents of sexual harassment started when she was an intern at SpaceX and continued after she became a full-time mission integration engineer.
A few weeks after my start date, a fellow intern approached me in our intern housing and grabbed my butt while I was washing my dishes. I reported the incident to a superior and another colleague, but the matter was never brought to HR. I had to continue living in the residence with this man.
Over my next two years as a SpaceX intern, countless men made sexual advances toward me. In 2018, during a team bonding event, a male colleague ran his hand over my shirt, from my lower waist to my chest. I told my supervisors what he had done, then met with HR and reported the inappropriate behavior, but no one followed up. This man remained part of the team I reported to and worked for. Given my tenuous position at the company, I felt powerless.
In the past year alone, I have had to bring multiple different incidents of sexism to HR. Some of the men who work at SpaceX hug women without consent, stare at women while they work, and interpret every company-related social event as an opportunity to date (or hit on) women in the office. I saw one woman pressured into dancing with a male colleague in front of other male employees. When we had to work from home during the pandemic, men from the company found my Instagram account, messaging me to ask me out. One called my phone at 4:00 am. Another coworker came to my house and insisted on touching me even when I repeatedly requested we stay professional.
I reported each incident of sexual harassment I experienced to HR, and nothing was done. I was told that matters of this nature were too private to openly discuss with the perpetrators. Instead, they said mandated company training programs would be held. I presented ideas for a standardized framework for penalizing sexual harassers to HR, as they had not implemented any remedies; those ideas went unresponded to. I recorded a meeting I had with HR, because I found it so unbelievable that there was no system in place to deal with this behavior. In the end, nothing happened—except I was given a warning that recording the meeting was in violation of SpaceX policy and Florida law. Each and every man who harassed me was tolerated despite the company’s so-called no-tolerance and no-asshole policy.
Kosak said she eventually met with Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell and head of human relations Brian Bjelde. “They assured me they had never heard about my harassment experiences, and said that executive-level leadership is not involved in discussions of the frequency of this issue within their departments. I was asked to email them my list of proposed solutions,” Kosak wrote.
The Verge said it spoke with four former SpaceX employees who backed up Kosak’s claims.
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.…
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.
A note at the end of Kosak’s essay said SpaceX did not respond to a request to comment on the allegations. Media outlets have reported that Shotwell sent an internal email in advance of the essay’s publication saying SpaceX would conduct an independent audit of the company’s human relations practices.
Similar allegations were made in six lawsuits filed against Tesla this week. Those filings coming on the heels of a lawsuit filed by another female employee last month.
The six women bringing lawsuits described a number of common experiences in both interviews with The Washington Post and in legal filings. Several women alleged they complained about the behavior, but that it didn’t change; other women said because their superiors participated in the harassment, they feared talking to human resources. Multiple women alleged they attempted to protect themselves from harassment by procuring baggy clothes in an effort to fend off their co-workers. A number of women alleged their workplace experience led to depression and anxiety, ultimately preventing them from advancing in their careers.
Jessica Brooks, who works at the Fremont seat factory, alleged the harassment was so extreme she stacked boxes around her work station to deter men from ogling and whistling at her. In a legal complaint and an interview with The Post, she says she bought flannel shirts at a thrift store to tie around her waist, in an effort to conceal her backside and prevent men from directing lewd comments at her.
“I was so tired of the unwanted attention and the males gawking at me, I proceeded to create barriers around me just so I could get some relief,” said Brooks, who lives in Contra Costa County. “That was something I felt necessary just so I can do my job.”
Brooks alleges she complained to human resources, but the behavior was not addressed. Instead, she said, she was moved to a different part of the factory. (The Post viewed a message from Tesla human resources dating from November confirming it had investigated Brooks’s complaint.) She is currently on stress-related leave, she said.
Musk, who is quite active on Twitter, has not publicly commented on the lawsuits or the essay. In the wake of the allegations, questions have been raised about the appropriateness of some of the billionaire’s past tweets.
Exactly one year prior the publication of the essay, Musk tweeted an image of an aching back with the words, “My back after carrying my huge cock all day.”
On Oct. 28, Musk tweeted, “Am thinking of starting new university: Texas Institute of Technology & Science.” The acronym for the university would be TITS. “It will have epic merch[andise],” he added. “Universally admired.”
Critics have questioned whether Musk, who is known to be a very hands-on CEO who has occasionally worked on Tesla’s assembly line, has set a bad example for his male employees.
Kosak painted a negative picture of SpaceX’s overall culture, where employees are expected to work 20 hour days to fulfill Musk’s dream of establishing a colony on Mars only to be told by the world’s richest man that their work is never good enough.
It may also be that the atmosphere at work felt familiar to me. Elon Musk’s behavior bears a remarkable similarity to the behavior of a sadistic and abusive man who had previously been part of my life. Elon makes promises he doesn’t hold himself accountable to, shifts the goalpost constantly, unnecessarily strips resources from people who are working themselves to the brink of burnout, and then sends threatening messages to remind them that their efforts will never be adequate.
These conditions would be disturbing anywhere, but in this particular workplace, we are blazing a trail to settle a new planet. What will life on Elon’s Mars be like? Probably much like life at SpaceX. Elon uses engineers as a resource to be mined rather than a team to be led. The health of Earth is rarely a consideration in the company’s projects. Misogyny is rampant.
SpaceX is not the only billionaire-run launch company facing such allegations. In September, former Blue Origin communications executive Alexandra Abrams published an essay on Lioness raising questions about the safety of the company’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle and alleging a toxic culture where dissent was suppressed. She wrote that a culture of sexism at Jeff Bezos’ company, saying sexual harassment went unpunished.
Workforce gender gaps are common in the space industry, but at Blue Origin they also manifest in a particular brand of sexism. Numerous senior leaders have been known to be consistently inappropriate with women. One senior executive in CEO Bob Smith’s loyal inner circle was reported multiple times to Human Resources for sexual harassment. Even so, Smith personally made him a member of the hiring committee for filling a senior HR role in 2019.
Another former executive frequently treated women in a condescending and demeaning manner, calling them “baby girl,” “baby doll,” or “sweetheart” and inquiring about their dating lives. His inappropriate behavior was so well known that some women at the company took to warning new female hires to stay away from him, all while he was in charge of recruiting employees. It appeared to many of us that he was protected by his close personal relationship with Bezos—it took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go.
Additionally, a former NASA astronaut and Blue Origin senior leader once instructed a group of women with whom he was collaborating: “You should ask my opinion because I am a man.” We found many company leaders to be unapproachable and showing clear bias against women. Concerns related to flying New Shepard were consistently shut down, and women were demeaned for raising them. When one man was let go for poor performance, he was allowed to leave with dignity, even a going-away party. Yet when a woman leader who had significantly improved her department’s performance was let go, she was ordered to leave immediately, with security hovering until she exited the building five minutes later.
What are the blind spots of an organization whose stated mission is to enable humanity’s better future, yet is rife with sexism? Blue Origin’s flaws extend further, unfortunately. The company proclaims it will build a better world because we’re well on our way to ruining this one, yet none of us has seen Blue Origin establish any concrete plans to become carbon neutral or significantly reduce its large environmental footprint.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it investigated the safety claims about New Shepard. It recently closed the investigation, saying it was unable to find anything in part because there are no whistleblower protections for employees working in the commercial space industry.