Former SpaceX engineer essay alleges culture is ‘rife with sexism’

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A Falcon 9 rocket is displayed outside the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) headquarters on January 28, 2021 in Hawthorne, California.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

A female former employee of Elon Musk’s SpaceX alleged in an essay published Tuesday that the space company’s workplace is “rife with sexism” and that its human resources team does not protect victims of harassment or abuse.

Ashley Kosak, who worked at SpaceX for about four years as an intern and then as an engineer, alleged in her essay on blog site Lioness that SpaceX’s culture is “in a state of disrepair and dysfunction so great that the only remedy, finally, was to leave.” Kosak left SpaceX in November and now works for Apple.

“I know that SpaceX is now trying to improve … what I really hope happens is that not only women come to understand how widespread this issue is but also their male counterparts,” Kosak told CNBC in an interview on Tuesday. “We can continue to try to actually start holding people accountable.”

CNBC also spoke with Julia CrowleyFarenga, who was a three-time intern at SpaceX and alleged her own instances of sexual harassment and HR negligence.

CrowleyFarenga sued SpaceX for discrimination and retaliation in 2020 after not being hired. The lawsuit has since “been resolved,” CrowleyFarenga said. She now works for the California Institute of Technology at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“It’s really important for people to hear these stories so that hopefully those responsible will be held accountable for their actions,” CrowleyFarenga said.

SpaceX did not respond to CNBC’s repeated requests for comment.

The company has about 10,000 employees across the United States, many of whom Kosak would have spent time around during her work at its headquarters in Los Angeles and its launch operations facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Kosak and CrowleyFarenga paint a different picture of SpaceX versus the way the company appears publicly. Female engineers regularly host the company’s launch webcasts, which are viewed by millions online, while SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell has become one of the most powerful women in the space industry.

In Musk’s interview with Time magazine published Monday, he described SpaceX’s Starship development facility in Texas as “like a technology monastery” and said the company’s workforce is male-dominated.

“There’s hardly any — there are some women here — but not many, and it’s remote and we do technology,” Musk said in the interview.

Notably, SpaceX is not alone as a space company facing internal criticism of its culture. Earlier this year Lioness published a similar essay by Alexandra Abrams, the former head of employee communications at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

Abrams’ essay, endorsed anonymously by 20 other current and former Blue Origin employees, alleged a “toxic” workplace that created a sexist environment. Blue Origin has had a volatile year, ranging from the successes of launching 14 people on its New Shepard rocket to the turmoil of high employee turnover.

Their experience

Kosak started at SpaceX as an intern in 2017, before the company hired her full time in 2019. During her time as an intern, Kosak alleged, another intern “grabbed my butt while I was washing my dishes” in the company’s housing. She said she reported the incident to two colleagues, including a superior, but that “the matter was never brought to HR” and that she continued “living in residence with this man.”

She wrote that over the next two years as she interned for the company “countless men” made “sexual advances toward me” and alleged another incident in which “a male colleague ran his hand over my shirt, from my lower waist to my chest.” Kosak said she again reported the incident to her supervisors and this time met with HR.

“No one followed up. This man remained part of the team I reported to and worked for,” Kosak alleged.

In 2021, as a full-time employee, Kosak brought further “incidents of sexism to HR,” including ones that she witnessed, she said.

“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,” Kosak said.

She alleged that “nothing was done” in response to each incident she reported to HR.

“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,” Kosak said.

Kosak said that after more incidents, she submitted “a message to the SpaceX anonymous Ethics and Compliance tip line.” But “despite its advertised anonymity,” Kosak said, “the tip line was actually a Microsoft form that allows the admins to see the submitter’s identity.”

“A week later, I was contacted by HR and confronted with invasive questions regarding the nature of the harassment,” Kosak said.

Before she left the company, Kosak said, she met with SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, as well as the company’s head of HR.

“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,” Kosak wrote.

Shotwell has previously said that SpaceX has a “no a——” policy. In a commencement address at Northwestern University earlier this year, Shotwell said “a——-” are people who “interrupt others” and “create a hostile environment where no one wants to contribute.” But Kosak alleged in her essay that SpaceX’s culture does not follow that policy in practice, writing that “each and every man who harassed me was tolerated despite the company’s so-called no-tolerance and no-a—— policy.”

“Ultimately, I was disappointed,” Kosak told CNBC. “Because I thought, by the time that I was in that meeting [with Shotwell], they would have known.”

CrowleyFarenga added that it’s “absurd” that SpaceX leadership would only recently be “hearing about sexual harassment at the company.” She said that she was in a women’s network with a mentor who would talk to Shotwell, and discussed how a SpaceX male supervisor treated CrowleyFarenga while she was an intern.

“Gwynne [Shotwell] was not happy to hear that a manager was spending two hours with his intern,” CrowleyFarenga said.

In her essay, Kosak added that “the last I heard, new SpaceX interns would receive training on how to better report their harassment,” but emphasized that her alleged harassers “have still not been held to account.”

Her carbon neutral plan

Kosak said she “created a plan that would bring SpaceX to full carbon neutrality by 2030,” in part because she saw the company’s culture as being at odds with its mission of making humanity a multiplanetary species.

“It contained a framework for a diverse and functional society that would learn from our colonial past and incorporate indigenous expertise,” Kosak wrote in the essay.

Kosak alleged that some of SpaceX’s buildings “run on gas generators,” saying that “funding is not being dedicated to reducing carbon emissions.”

“While there are solar panels on campus, any attempts to make new buildings and infrastructure sustainable (LEED) are deprioritized in favor of expanding the factory as fast as possible,” Kosak said.

Kosak wrote that she brought her plan directly to Musk but said that he “dismissed it with an email that said: ‘We have wind and solar energy.'” She said she continued working on her plan, with other SpaceX engineers volunteering to help her develop it. Before she quit, in November, she left “a final note to my team to continue working toward a sustainable climate solution,” Kosak said.

Musk, in a tweet hours before Kosak’s essay was published Tuesday, announced a company climate project.

“SpaceX is starting a program to take CO2 out of atmosphere & turn it into rocket fuel,” Musk said.

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