The Tech Industry’s Gender-Discrimination Problem

One day in 2013, AJ Vandermeyden drove to Tesla’s corporate headquarters, in Palo Alto, California, sat down on a bench outside the main entrance, and waited, in the hope of spotting someone who looked like a company employee. Vandermeyden, who was thirty years old, had been working as a pharmaceutical sales representative since shortly after college, but she wanted a different kind of job, in what seemed to her the center of the world—Silicon Valley. She knew that Tesla’s ambitious, eccentric co-founder Elon Musk was managing companies devoted to space flight and solar energy, in addition to running Tesla, which was producing electric cars, and she was inspired by his mission. Tesla was growing quickly and offered numerous opportunities for employees to advance. The company, Musk liked to say, was a “meritocracy,” and Vandermeyden wanted to be a part of it.

Vandermeyden saw a man wearing a Tesla T-shirt and walked over to introduce herself. After she found out that he worked in sales, the department she wanted to join, she decided to deliver her pitch to him right then. He seemed impressed by her nerve. A few weeks later, she was hired at Tesla as a product specialist in the inside-sales department.

At first, Vandermeyden thrived at Tesla. After almost a year, she was promoted to the job of engineering project coördinator in the paint department. The new position involved working out of Tesla’s automotive manufacturing facility in Fremont, California, where hundreds of apple-red robot arms assembled Tesla vehicles on a white factory floor. The whirr of the robots in motion gave the plant the feel of something out of science fiction.

But even in this futuristic environment there was something about life at Tesla that seemed distinctly atavistic—and deeply wrong. Vandermeyden, who worked closely with a group of eight other employees, soon learned that her salary was lower than that of everyone else in the group, including several new hires who had come to Tesla straight out of college. She was, as it happened, the only woman in the group. Her supervisors, and her supervisors’ supervisors, were male, all the way up the chain, it seemed, to Musk himself.

“Sorry we missed the heist—we got sidetracked when Roscoe smelled some truffles.”

At Tesla, as at many tech companies, gallows humor prevailed among some of the women. There was a sense that the male executives had little understanding of the challenges women faced at the company. One former Tesla employee told me that women made up less than ten per cent of her working group; at one point, there were actually more men named Matt in the group than there were women. This became a source of rueful comedy. One male colleague quipped that they should change the sign reading “Women’s Room” to “Matt’s Room.”

Vandermeyden was a dedicated employee. Before long, a manager from the general-assembly division, who had heard that Vandermeyden had worked for twenty-six hours straight on a particular project, persuaded her to switch to his group. She started wearing steel-toed boots and safety glasses at work. She noticed that sometimes, when female employees walked through certain areas of the plant, male workers whistled, catcalled, and made derogatory comments. Women called it the “predator zone.”

In July, 2015, about three months after Vandermeyden joined the team, several of her male colleagues were promoted. Although she was under the impression that she would shortly receive a promotion and a raise, she did not get either, according to court documents. She e-mailed her boss, listing her accomplishments and reminding him that her performance reviews had all been positive. He didn’t seem to be taking her concerns seriously, so she started copying the human-resources department on her e-mails. She scheduled a meeting with her boss’s boss, who cancelled it at the last minute, just before he left town for two weeks of vacation.

Finally, two months later, Vandermeyden’s managers told her that, in order to be given a raise, she would have to increase the rate of the production line by a hundred per cent within a year. This was an aggressive, probably unrealistic, goal, Vandermeyden felt, and she couldn’t help thinking that the company was setting her up for failure, so that it would have cause to fire her. She decided to consult a lawyer. On September 20, 2016, Vandermeyden filed a lawsuit charging Tesla with sex discrimination, retaliation, and other workplace violations.

Since October, when dozens of women went public with accusations of harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein, the problem of sexual harassment has become a central topic in the national conversation. After a long silence, women have come forward to make allegations against other powerful figures, including the film director James Toback; the head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price; and the political analyst Mark Halperin, with new names being added every few days. Many of the alleged abuses have taken place in the entertainment business, which seems almost uniquely structured to facilitate the exploitation of women, with generations of young actresses trying to climb a career ladder built and controlled by male producers and directors. But the allegations in other areas, from academia and local government to corporate offices, have made clear that the broader American workplace resembles Hollywood more than most people have previously acknowledged.

After the revelations about Weinstein and others—revelations that have included harrowing stories of rape and assault, which Weinstein and others deny—issues like unequal pay and lack of promotion might seem minor by comparison. They aren’t, of course, Weinstein-level problems—but they are the problems that create men like Weinstein. It’s the imbalance of pay and power that puts men in a position to harass, that gives them unchecked control over the economic lives of women and, as a result, influence over their physical lives. These subtler forms of discrimination, familiar to almost any woman who has held a job, can in fact be especially insidious, since they are easier for companies, and even victims, to dismiss.

This problem is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the technology industry. In 2015, a group of female tech investors and executives conducted a survey of two hundred senior-level women in Silicon Valley. Titled “The Elephant in the Valley,” the study demonstrated how intertwined, and how pervasive, these kinds of discrimination are. Eighty-four per cent of the participants reported that they had been told they were “too aggressive” in the office, sixty-six per cent said that they had been excluded from important events because of their gender, and sixty per cent reported unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. A large majority of those advances came from a superior, and a third of the women said that they’d been worried about their personal safety. Almost forty per cent said that they didn’t report the incidents because they feared retaliation. “Men who demean, degrade or disrespect women have been able to operate with such impunity—not just in Hollywood, but in tech, venture capital, and other spaces where their influence and investment can make or break a career,” Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told me. “The asymmetry of power is ripe for abuse.”

This inhospitable climate is partly a result of tech’s hugely imbalanced gender ratio. Studies estimate that women make up only a quarter of employees and eleven per cent of executives in the industry. There have, of course, been other male-dominated fields notorious for similar behavior, including Wall Street and Madison Avenue. But part of what differentiates tech is the industry’s self-regard, as a realm of visionary futurists and tireless innovators who are making the world better. Without irony, they tell themselves, “Don’t be evil,” parroting Google’s code of corporate conduct. In many ways, the tech world doesrepresent the future: it has attracted a generation of the most promising engineers, scientists, and coders and paid them handsomely, all but assuring that they will have influence over the nation’s ideas and values for years to come. It’s deeply troubling, then, that many of these companies and their C.E.O.s have created an internal culture that, at least when it comes to sexual harassment and gender inequality, resembles the Mad Men era, without the skinny ties and Martini lunches.

Tesla’s situation shows how a heavily male-dominated enterprise—even a highly innovative one—can leave women feeling powerless. After Vandermeyden filed her lawsuit, word gradually spread throughout the company. A few months later, an e-mail went out to Tesla’s internal group of female employees, inviting them to an event to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Read the full New Yorker article here.

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November 20, 2017