A former SpaceX engineer alleges in an essay published Tuesday morning that “misogyny is rampant” at the Elon Musk-led startup, where she claims to have received little to no support on the numerous occasions she brought claims of sexism and sexual harassment to her superiors and HR.
“Each and every man who harassed me was tolerated despite the company’s so-called no-tolerance and no-asshole policy,” she writes.
The former employee, Ashley Kosak, additionally says the aerospace manufacturer exists in a “state of disrepair and dysfunction” and that Musk’s own behavior is similar to that of “a sadistic and abusive man.” Kosak published the essay on the New York-based platform Lioness, which “brings forward stories about encounters with power.”
The agency, which has also published essays by whistleblowers at companies like Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace manufacturer, has also developed a related Musk-focused non-fungible token to accompany Kosak’s story. Lioness claims to be the first whistleblower organization to help fund itself through the use of such NFTs.
Kosak told Motherboard the Blue Origin essay inspired her own decision to tell her story and that Lioness has since connected her to other women who have spoken up, creating a supportive community.
SpaceX did not respond to a detailed request for comment on Koask’s allegations, but Musk has himself mocked whistleblowers in the past. Just last month, he tweeted “Blow the whistle on Tesla!” along with a link to the Tesla site, where his electric vehicle company was selling a $50 “Cyberwhistle.”
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Musk, the richest person in the world, was named TIME’s Person of the Year this week after transforming SpaceX and Tesla into two of the most influential companies in the world. Last year, SpaceX became the first private company in history to launch a human into orbit; in October, it received a valuation of more than $100 billion.
But Musk has claimed all is not well at the company, telling staff in an email last month that the company risks “bankruptcy” should its Starship rocket not achieve “flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.” Kosak argues such claims are part of Musk’s strategy to manufacture “a scarcity complex,” which helps foster an an environment where he “pushes engineers to the point of burnout, berates employees for not meeting the expectations he shifts at whiplash speed, or threatens workers with job loss if they don’t increase their output.” Kosak additionally alleges in the essay that Musk “sends threatening messages to remind them that their efforts will never be adequate,” a claim backed up by unrelated sources.
Kosak’s own issues at SpaceX started soon after she first joined the company as an intern in 2017, she says. Only weeks later, a fellow intern approached her and “grabbed my butt while I was washing my dishes,” she writes. Kosak reported the incident to two people, including her superior, she writes, but no one reported the incident to HR and she had to continue living in the same housing as her assailant.
The mistreatment continued from there, she writes, as she dealt with “countless men” who “made sexual advances” toward her. In 2018, a male co-worker “ran his hand over [her] shirt, from [her] lower waist to my chest.” That time, she met with HR herself, but received no follow up, she writes. “This man remained part of the team I reported to and worked for. Given my tenuous position at the company, I felt powerless.” Kosak writes that one man called her at 4 a.m. and that another arrived at her house “and insisted on touching me even when I repeatedly requested we stay professional.”
The company’s HR team did not act appropriately when Kosak told them of misconduct, she asserts. “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,” she writes. “Instead, they said mandated company training programs would be held.” (Kosak told Motherboard, “Their privacy is important, but my personal privacy, my physical privacy was violated.” ) When she presented an idea for a “standardized framework for penalizing sexual harassers,” she writes, she did not receive a response.
After she submitted an anonymous message through a “the SpaceX anonymous Ethics and Compliance tip line,” she writes, she discovered it “was actually a Microsoft form that allows the admins to see the submitter’s identity,” and HR contacted her and “confronted” her “with invasive questions regarding the nature of the harassment.”
The premise of the meeting had been to discuss her most recent report of sexual harassment. It was the first time she had ever received a follow-up meeting with HR about a harassment claim.
“And I get into the meeting and I've been bait-and-switched into talking about this anonymous tip,” she told Motherboard.
Kosak told Motherboard the culture of harassment proved to be a “huge distraction” but that she tried to deal with it by focusing her energy on her job. Around a year ago, though, she started to “fully understand how extensively broken the system was” at SpaceX. “I really came to the conclusion of, ‘Oh, this, this system is protecting these people. And it's hurting women engineers at this company,’” she said.
“Eventually, it was just too much,” she told Motherboard. “The person who last harassed me was someone who I was ultimately going to have to start working with on a different program.”
The stress of these and other experiences—some involving attempts to get SpaceX to live up to its claims about its environmental impacts, which she says it does not do—affected her health over time. Last month, she writes, her psychiatrist “wrote to the company to recommend that I take a leave of absence due to panic attacks that gave me heart palpitations.” After she took leave, she writes, she “received a frantic cadence of calls from HR, asking to talk.”
Soon after that, she quit.
Kosak told Motherboard she believes it is “quite well known within the company” that women regularly deal with sexism and harassment at SpaceX, but she’s not sure if Musk himself is “aware of how severe this issue is within his factory.” “His reaction to this is going to be indicative of how seriously he takes this issue,” she told Motherboard.
“The last I heard, new SpaceX interns would receive training on how to better report their harassment,” she writes. “The harassers, on the other hand, have still not been held to account.”
As part of the rollout of Kosak’s story, Lioness has coordinated the creation of an NFT depicting Musk, a whistle-shaped rocket holding a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The NFT was developed by London-based artist Jason Measures.
“Whoever buys the NFT will have the first of a collection of artworks that correspond to big stories that powerful people don’t want out there,” Lioness told Motherboard over email, adding that the money raised will go toward the agency’s pro bono work and documentary projects, among other things.