By: Quan Nguyen
January 29th, 2022
Elon Musk is one of the current leaders in technology. He’s most well known for SpaceX, his space exploration program, and Tesla, his electric car company. These companies, among Musk’s other brands, are striving for big feats like exploring Mars or fostering the implementation of self-driving cars. Such accomplishments seem like they would be run under professional and sympathetic leadership, but that may not be the case.
In September 2021, SpaceX initiated Inspiration4, a four-person spaceflight mission. This was the first all-civilian mission, and the first time a Black woman piloted a spacecraft. Sian Proctor, Ph.D., made a place in SpaceX’s history books and for women of color in science.
Before Proctor, there were few Black astronauts and even fewer Black female astronauts. It has been nearly 15 years since Joan Higginbotham, the latest Black female astronaut, traveled to space. But never have Black women been given the chance to be the actual pilot for a space mission. With NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins preparing to be the first Black woman to work on the International Space Station long-term in April 2022, SpaceX seems to be reigniting the involvement of diversity in the science community.
While it may seem that SpaceX is working toward a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce, their recent history showcases the opposite. In March 2020, SpaceX job applicant Fabian Hutter applied for a technical strategy associate position. Hutter was not hired and surmises that his dual citizenship in Canada and Austria contributed to being turned down, despite being a lawful permanent United States resident.
Hutter filed a complaint to the government, and the U.S. Department of Justice became involved. The Immigrant and Employee Rights Section of the DOJ notified SpaceX in June 2021 that it had started an investigation, which elicited rather suspicious responses from SpaceX. The IER requested documents pertaining to the hiring process at SpaceX, to which SpaceX only partially complied with months later.
In August, SpaceX provided the DOJ with a Form I-9 spreadsheet of its newly hired employees since 2019 but refused “to produce any Form I-9 supporting documentation, such as copies of employees’ passports, driver’s licenses or Social Security cards.” On top of that, SpaceX only provided information on 3,500 employees, claiming any more would be “unduly burdensome.” At this point, SpaceX is only fueling suspicions of a shady workplace environment.
The DOJ eventually subpoenaed for the documents later in October. To no surprise, SpaceX again refused to hand over documentation on their employees and instead filed a petition to dismiss the subpoena due to government overreach. Entertaining the back-and-forth display of assertiveness, the DOJ denied the petition. The same feud occurred again in December.
The U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations state that non-U.S. citizens with green cards can work for SpaceX. However, Hutter claims that the interviewer focused on asking questions about nationality instead of asking technical questions. In a court filing, SpaceX claims it knew about his citizenship before the interview and simply was unimpressed with his interview questions, calling the whole case “facially nonsensical.” What complicates SpaceX’s defense here is when the IER revealed the hiring manager wrote on Hutter’s interview feedback, “not a U.S. citizen, which is going to make it hard.”
SpaceX continues to dismiss the subpoenas, but there will be a court hearing in March 2022 to address the issue. However, the company’s discriminatory acts aren’t just at the hiring level; the issue persists internally.
Ajay Reddy, a former SpaceX engineer disclosed his experiences working in the company’s racially discriminatory workplace. Reddy identifies as Asian American of Indian descent and worked with two white engineers. The team was at first unfamiliar with a new project that recovers remnants of launched rockets, but his colleague received several days of training. Reddy was denied the same training upon request according to his later lawsuit, stating that he felt “humiliated and isolated, and his work performance was sabotaged.”
Further, Reddy alleged that his colleagues “ruined millions of dollars of equipment” in error without punishment while Reddy was punished for similar errors. He was also paid less than non-Asian engineers even though he was doing the same work. This corporate discrimination was stacked upon severe harassment throughout his time at SpaceX, and he was ultimately fired for alleged claims of making facial expressions toward a candidate in a group interview.
A complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June 2020 from Reddy included race and national origin discrimination, retaliation and breach of contract. Not only was his employment terminated on baseless claims, but the harassment and inequality he experienced also led to “economic loss, mental pain and suffering, extreme emotional stress and loss of ability to lead a normal life.”
Several others on the internet have spoken out about SpaceX’s DEI as well. Glassdoor, an online job board, lists reviews for SpaceX such as “HR team doesn’t investigate harassment, they just fire people,” “Elitist environment and lack (of) diversity,” “hardly any work-life balance. Harassment is claimed to be not tolerated but is often swept under the rug,” and “very (little) diversity or female employees.”
One of Musk’s other companies, Tesla, harbors similar DEI problems. In late 2020, Tesla published its first diversity report. The reports show that the company is 79% male and 34% white. Black employees made up 10% of the workforce while Asians were 21%. They claim to be a “majority minority,” but white men dominate its workplace and leadership roles. Tesla also released fewer statistics in their report than competitor tech companies, omitting data on veterans, non-binary employees and people with disabilities.
In 2016, Black elevator operator Owen Diaz reported the hostile work environment at Tesla. He and his son, who also worked at Tesla, experienced racial harassment and were targeted with racial slurs, which were not addressed by supervisors. Diaz filed for a lawsuit in 2017 for harassment “straight from the Jim Crow era.”
Instead of owning up to their oversight, Tesla mimics the behavior of SpaceX by disputing the claims and stating that there is insufficient evidence to prove workplace discrimination. A jury fined Tesla $137 million in damages for this case since Diaz left his job in 2016 because he could no longer face the harassment.
All of these incidents around DEI in SpaceX and Tesla point back to Musk. Although he cannot always directly act for each of his companies, the overlooked incidents at these workplaces certainly speak for him. In fact, his companies may have gotten away with it because Musk harbors the same inconsiderate mindset.
In July 2020, Musk tweeted the controversial statement, “Pronouns suck,” which invited massive backlash in the comments. Later that year, despite transphobic accusations, he continued to mock people who use pronouns with a meme. Ironically, Tesla then announced the Human Rights Campaign gave the company a perfect score for the fourth year in a row in LGBTQ+ equality. But after these tweets and Musk claiming that pronouns are “an aesthetic nightmare,” the HRC is demanding an apology.
Twitter users took a jab back at Musk for the hypocrisy of scrutinizing pronoun aesthetics while naming his latest son “X Æ A-12.” A former HRC press secretary replied to Musk’s tweet that the HRC score can be deducted for things like this tweet and that he should consult his human resources personnel who know what they’re doing. It’s clear from his tweets that Musk is not promoting an inclusive digital space, and that his companies’ DEI struggles may stem from its leader.
Whether Musk likes it or not, his companies are tied to his name. Being of South African, Canadian, and US citizenship, people might expect him to welcome a more diverse workplace and society. But he seems to be more focused on the products of his work. Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla may be trying to advance humanity, but they are not shy to step on others to achieve their goals.
Quan Nguyen is a senior studying professional and public writing. He also currently works as a technical writer and aims to continue with that career path. When not writing, he plays guitar, plays video games, longboards or messes around with tech stuff.