Female SpaceX Employee Sues for Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA - AUGUST 25: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft sits on Launch Complex 39A after its launch was scrubbed at the Kennedy Space Center on August 25, 2023 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA's SpaceX Crew-7 mission is the seventh crew rotation mission of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

A lawsuit filed on March 5, 2024, in California Superior Court by Michelle Dopak, a former production coordinator at SpaceX headquarters, has sent shockwaves through the aerospace industry. Dopak’s allegations paint a disturbing picture of a workplace rife with gender discrimination and retaliation, raising serious concerns about SpaceX’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

A Troubling Pattern Emerges

Dopak’s case isn’t the first to target SpaceX’s workplace practices. In August 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against SpaceX alleging discrimination against job applicants with refugee or asylum seeker status. This lawsuit highlighted potential biases within SpaceX’s recruitment process. Furthermore, a former female engineer filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in October 2023, alleging systemic bias against women within the company. These legal actions, coupled with Dopak’s lawsuit, necessitate a closer look at SpaceX’s internal culture and its commitment to equal opportunity for all employees.

A Hostile Work Environment Takes Shape

Michelle Dopak in the law suit claims her male colleagues with similar experience and qualifications were allegedly receiving higher salaries, she was denied promotions and was also subjected to harassment by her boss and collogues . “Due to the discriminatory employment practices within SpaceX’s leadership, Plaintiff’s male colleagues began telling everyone that Plaintiff and other female colleagues only received their jobs because of their looks.”- from the lawsuit. Her then supervisor was aware of this but did nothing to prevent or stop the false rumors. Dopak and other female colleagues allegedly confided in each other about these experiences, realizing a pattern of mistreatment.

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In August 2018, Dopak, along with two other female colleagues, felt compelled to take their concerns directly to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president. The lawsuit alleges they presented Shotwell with a detailed record of their experiences, including instances of unequal pay, missed promotions, and the demeaning comments they had endured. They reportedly felt the need to bring documentation such as resumes and project accomplishments to “prove their worth” and disprove rumors they believed were circulating about them, a situation their male colleagues wouldn’t face. Dopak’s lawsuit alleges that despite their efforts, no concrete actions were taken by Shotwell or SpaceX in response to their complaints.

A Coercive Relationship and its Devastating Aftermath

The lawsuit takes a more disturbing turn when Dopak alleges a supervisor of sexual harrasments. After a company restructuring in early 2019, Dopak’s new supervisor, who allegedly exploited her desire for a promotion and anxieties about job security. The lawsuit details the supervisor’s manipulative tactics, which included isolating Dopak, intimidating her by mentioning his connections within SpaceX, and implying that rejecting his advances would negatively impact her career.

Dopak alleges the supervisor subjected her to unwanted sexual comments, both in person and through text messages, and ultimately forced her into unprotected sexual encounters. This alleged quid pro quo arrangement – promotion in exchange for sexual favors – lasted for over a year and created a hostile work environment, and led resulted into a pregnancy according to the law suit. The lawsuit details the coercive nature of the encounter by highlighting the supervisor offered of a significant sum of money, $100,000, to terminate the pregnancy which Dopak rejected.

Following the birth of their child, Dopak alleges that her supervisor resorted to what the lawsuit describes as “financial maneuvers” with the help of higher-ups within SpaceX. These maneuvers allegedly involved transferring his share of about 48,289 in common stocks ( (valued at $77/share; totaling about $3,718,253, according to the law suit), out of his name in an apparent attempt to avoid child support payments.

SpaceX Pays Women Less Than Men With the Same Role

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES – MAY 21: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft lifts off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for the Axiom Space Mission 2 (Ax-2) on May 21, 2023 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The four-person private astronaut Ax-2 crew, which will spend eight days on the International Space Station, includes former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner, and Saudi Space Commission astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Saudi woman to fly to space. (Photo by Paul Hennesy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

After receiving a promotion, Dopak discovered a male colleague, who started at SpaceX just one day prior, was earning $5,000 more annually despite having the same experience and qualifications. After noticing this, Dopak brought this discrepancy to the attention of her supervisor, who discouraged her from raising the issue with Human Resources (HR) fearing it would jeopardize their personal relationship. Despite this pressure, Dopak reported the pay gap to HR.

However, neither HR nor her supervisor could provide a legitimate explanation for the difference and denied it was due to gender. The proposed solution from HR was a minimal raise of $2,500 for Dopak, but with a reduction in her stock benefits. Fearing retaliation and potential job loss, Dopak reluctantly agreed to this offer, though it meant she was still being unfairly compensated compared to her male colleague. This incident exemplifies the alleged gender pay gap present at SpaceX, according to Dopak’s lawsuit.

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A Failure to Act Raises Questions

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Dopak’s lawsuit is the alleged inaction by SpaceX management. She claims that in 2018, she and two colleagues felt compelled to approach Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, with their concerns about discrimination and harassment. The lawsuit suggests these women had to prove their worth and disprove rumors about them, something their male colleagues wouldn’t face. Dopak’s claim that no action was taken by Shotwell or SpaceX raises serious questions about the company’s internal mechanisms for addressing such complaints. Were there established channels for reporting harassment? Did SpaceX conduct any investigation into the allegations raised in 2018?

Beyond the Lawsuit: A Call for Change

While Dopak’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, its true impact may lie in its potential to spark a cultural shift within SpaceX. The allegations, if proven true, necessitate a thorough investigation and decisive action by the company. This could involve revising internal policies on harassment and discrimination, implementing mandatory diversity and inclusion training for all employees at every level, and fostering a culture where employees feel safe reporting misconduct without fear of retaliation.

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An Industry Under Scrutiny

The allegations against SpaceX are not unique within the aerospace industry. A 2020 study by the Society of Women Engineers found that women make up only 28% of the aerospace workforce in the United States. This underrepresentation, coupled with anecdotal evidence of similar experiences faced by women in the industry, suggests a potential systemic issue. Dopak’s lawsuit, along with other accusations against SpaceX, could serve as a catalyst for broader discussions about fostering more inclusive workplaces within the entire aerospace sector.

Looking Forward: A Fight for Equality

Michelle Dopak’s lawsuit is more than just a personal fight; it’s a fight for equality in the workplace. The outcome of this case has the potential to send a powerful message to companies across the aerospace industry, and beyond. It’s a call for transparency, accountability, and a commitment to creating a work environment where everyone feels valued and respected, regardless of gender.

You can read the entire law suit here thanks to The verge.

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