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. 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. I started at SpaceX as an intern in 2017, joined the team full time in 2019 as a build reliability engineer, and was later promoted to mission integration engineer. I worked at Cape Canaveral, integrating the flagship crewed mission and Demo-2; I personally evaluated technical risk for the vehicle, among several other roles at the company. For a woman, particularly an Asian American woman, to reach a position at this level in the space industry is next to impossible.
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.
I did my best to compartmentalize the things I put up with as a woman at work each day. Why did I continue working at a company like this? Well, rocket science is not something you learn overnight; it’s a phenomenal field of expertise that is shared within the company, and a magic you learn to harness. I took great joy in that. We were promised we could change the world, and every time we met a goal it felt like all this pain, distrust, and sacrifice was worth it.
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.
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This story was originally published on Lioness and is reposted with permission.
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