Several former employees have gone public with allegations of sexual harassment experienced at SpaceX.
A former SpaceX employee has published allegations of serial sexual harassment experienced during her time at Elon Musk's company, which she writes that she reported to human resources to no avail. In conjunction with that account, four other former employees are citing firsthand experience of being harassed or seeing harassment at SpaceX, according to reporting by The Verge. Space.com reached out to SpaceX for a statement but has not received a response.
"I found my way through an abusive upbringing, leaving home at a young age, subsequent homelessness and sexual assault in college, and eventually got a job at the 'leading engineering company' in the world," engineer Ashley Kosak begins her essay, which was published on the website Lioness on Tuesday (Dec. 14). "Yet I simply could not find a way to navigate the conditions at SpaceX — a workplace I consider to be in a state of disrepair and dysfunction so great that the only remedy, finally, was to leave."
Kosak goes on to detail five specific incidents of sexual harassment she experienced and the company's response to her reports about them. That response, according to the essay, included telling her "that matters of this nature were too private to openly discuss with the perpetrators," requesting that she provide a "list of proposed solutions" to the harassment she experienced, and identifying her name through a complaint form that had been advertised as anonymous. Kosak also describes harassment she saw committed against others.
While she focuses on incidents of sexual harassment, Kosak also mentions experiencing race bias at the company and identifies herself as both a first-generation American and an Asian American. In addition, Kosak writes that her experience with sexual harassment began when she was an intern in 2017. (Evidence suggests that people who are marginalized on multiple dimensions are more likely to experience harassment; interns are also more vulnerable to harassment than full employees.)
Kosak completed two eight-month internships at SpaceX before spending 2.5 years working for the company full time, first as a build reliability engineer and then as a mission integration engineer, according to her LinkedIn profile. According to her essay, Kosak "personally evaluated technical risk" for the company's first crewed mission, Demo-2, which sent two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in 2020.
Lioness describes itself as "a storytelling platform" focused on "stories about encounters with power." In September, the same website published an essay by 21 current and former employees of Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin that painted a picture of a company blasé to safety concerns and tolerant of sexual harassment.
All but one of the co-authors remained anonymous, except for Alexandra Abrams, who worked for Blue Origin's communications department and became the face of the September essay. "Sadly, I know Ashley's experiences with harassment at #SpaceX are shared by many women," Abrams wrote on Twitter the day Kosak's essay was published. "I've heard an incredible # of disturbing accounts over the years. Ashley is stunningly brave for speaking up & shining a light in this darkness."
Kosak's account of the culture of SpaceX is echoed by four former employees who spoke with The Verge. Three of those employees are anonymous; a fourth, Julia CrowleyFarenga, filed a lawsuit against SpaceX in 2020 arguing that she was denied a job after reporting harassment.
The Verge also reported on an email to employees that SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell sent after the company was informed of the coming Lioness publication. In the email, according to The Verge, Shotwell noted that harassment should be reported and announced that a third party would be auditing the company's human resources practices.
"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's email read according to The Verge. The New York Times added that the email noted the company would "rigorously investigate all harassment or discrimination claims and take rapid and appropriate action when we find our policy is violated."
(Shotwell is perhaps the highest-profile woman in the space industry; Kosak wrote that among her experiences with company leadership, she met with Shotwell, who said she hadn't heard about the harassment Kosak experienced.)
Both Kosak and the employees who spoke with The Verge believe that the climate at SpaceX reflects upper management and Musk's prioritizing accomplishments and progress over the health of employees.
"Elon [Musk] uses engineers as a resource to be mined rather than a team to be led," Kosak wrote. "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."
The essay's subtitle references an October tweet from Musk in which he suggests a new university, the "Texas Institute of Technology & Science" and added that it would have "epic merch." He deleted additional, more vulgar tweets on the subject after receiving backlash. Another Musk company, electric car company Tesla, is also facing multiple lawsuits alleging sexual harassment.
A Florida Today article published in October, following the Blue Origin allegations, offers a top-level view of sexism and harassment in the space industry specifically and notes that low representation in a workplace can lead to discrimination. Women and non-binary people are generally underrepresented in science and engineering firms; the Florida Today article notes that NASA's science and engineering staff in 2020 was more than three-quarters men, although companies' demographic data is unavailable.
Sexual harassment is a known factor pushing women out of science and technology fields, and indeed, Kosak appears to have left not just SpaceX but the space industry altogether; according to her LinkedIn profile, she became an operations program manager at Apple this month.
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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.