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Women at US car firm describe ‘predator zone’ for harassment on factory floor

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Anna Brech
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Women working at US electric car empire Tesla complained of a “predator zone” on the factory floor where they were routinely harassed, according to a former employee who is suing the firm over discrimination.

AJ Vandermeyden, a female engineer who worked at the California-based sustainable energy company for four years, made the explosive claims in an interview with the Guardian this week.

The paper has closely tracked the 33-year-old’s story since she lifted the lid on an alleged culture on “pervasive harassment” and filed a lawsuit citing that and pay discrimination against Tesla in February. 

The firm since fired Vandermeyden for “falsely attacking our company in the press” – but not before she attended what she describes as a fraught town hall meeting where “women took the microphone one-by-one and shared stories of sexual harassment, mistreatment by male managers, unfair promotion decisions and more”, the Guardian reports.

Tesla's production line at its headquarters in Fremont, California

Tesla's production line at its headquarters in Fremont, California

Vandermeyden recalls how, at the meeting in March attended by around 20 female employees of Tesla, women described feeling unsafe around male managers.

One woman referred to a part of the factory as a “predator zone” for harassment. And when a moderator asked how many women had been catcalled at work, Vandermeyden says a number of people put their hands up.

Women also reported facing sexist remarks, being talked over and being dismissed in meetings, Vandermeyden says.



In its response to the Guardian report, Tesla denied that the atmosphere at the meeting was tense, saying: “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.”

It said the allegation of a predator zone “surprised many in the room who had never heard of this term”. Bosses reacted by sending an email to supervisors about its “strict policy against any kind of harassment”.

The meeting was not attended by Tesla’s renowned CEO, Silicon Valley mogul Elon Musk.

Tesla

Tesla, one of the world's best-known engineering companies, has a workforce that is 80% men

Vandermeyden says she decided to sue Tesla, where the workforce is 80% male, after her internal complaints over cat-calling, sexist taunts and unequal pay went unheard by senior figures at the corporation.

Her lawsuit claims that she was paid less than male engineers whose work she directly took over. She also alleged that she was passed over for promotion in favour of male engineers, despite consistently catching mistakes that they had made in their testing work.

She said that experienced “unwelcome and pervasive harassment by men on the factory floor including but not limited to inappropriate language, whistling and catcalls”.

Just months after filing the lawsuit, Vandermeyden was sacked – in what her lawyer describes as an act of “clear retaliation”.

“They just want to absolutely crush anyone who speaks up,” Vandermeyden said, in the latest Guardian report into the culture at Tesla. “I spoke up, and I was made a sacrificial lamb for it. It’s a scary precedent.”

In a lengthy statement to the newspaper justifying her dismissal, Tesla said: “Vandermeyden was given special treatment and opportunities for advancement that were unwarranted based on her qualifications, and that negatively impacted other more qualified individuals”.

They said that she had “fundamentally false and misleading manner” and had “falsely attacked” Tesla in the press, adding: “It is impossible to trust anyone after they have behaved in such a manner.”

Images: Rex and iStock

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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