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She took on Tesla for discrimination. Now others are speaking up. 'It's too big to deny'

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was “be bold for change” in the fight for a “more gender inclusive world” – but some at Tesla had a different plan for the day.

It was an opportunity for women to discover essential oils. A “health and wellness group” at the electric car company invited female staff members to an 8 March “lunch ‘n learn” about oils and how they can help improve people’s “health and happiness”, according to emails seen by the Guardian, which reveal that the proposed event was quickly met with vocal criticism. It was particularly offensive to some given that a week earlier, AJ Vandermeyden, a female engineer, had publicly accused Elon Musk’s company of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Tesla postponed the oils session. The company organized a town hall meeting on diversity for that day, which included six male executives and one woman, according to multiple attendees. At the crowded meeting at the Fremont factory, women took the microphone one-by-one and shared stories of sexual harassment, mistreatment by male managers, unfair promotion decisions and more, sources said.

Vandermeyden, who attended the meeting, thought the outpouring of comments validated her own story. But soon after, Tesla fired her, accusing her of pursuing a “miscarriage of justice” by filing a lawsuit that alleged “pervasive harassment” and pay discrimination. Testimony from the town hall – along with internal emails from Musk, and Vandermeyden’s first interview since her termination – paint a picture of a company that has struggled to respond to mounting complaints about gender discrimination and has aggressively attempted to discredit a woman who publicly criticized it .

“They just want to absolutely crush anyone who speaks up,” said Vandermeyden, 33, seated inside her attorney’s San Francisco office on a recent afternoon. “I spoke up, and I was made a sacrificial lamb for it. It’s a scary precedent.”

Vandermeyden detailed the painful experience of losing a job she loved while facing harsh personal attacks by Tesla in the media. She has come forward at a time when the tech industry is grappling with high profile sexual misconduct scandals at Uber, a prominent venture capital firm and a popular startup incubator.

Tesla, known internationally for its battery-powered vehicles and self-driving car technology, has strongly rejected Vandermeyden’s claims, saying she was terminated for “falsely attacking our company in the press”. But the flurry of criticisms that emerged at the town hall suggests that her complaints are not unique.

‘Predator zone’

Musk was not at the meeting, which was attended by roughly 70-100 people, and featured comments from more than 20 women, according to Vandermeyden and another attendee. One woman described parts of the factory as a “predator zone” for harassment. When the moderator asked women in the room if they had ever been catcalled, a significant number of women raised their hands, according to Vandermeyden.

Other women allegedly talked about feeling unsafe around male managers and facing sexist remarks from superiors. Women talked about being dismissed and talked over in meetings with no other female employees, and asked questions about diversity in hiring and the lack of women in leadership positions.

Some of the executives seemed genuinely concerned and taken aback by the women’s comments. One male leader said it was unacceptable, noting that he had daughters, said Vandermeyden.

One female manager, who was present but no longer works for Tesla, told the Guardian she was...