Within the cutting-edge technologies and advancements of our Aerospace industries lies an age-old problem: sexism and harassment. Recent publications have brought to light these blind spots regarding Aerospace employees and their overall safety in the work environment itself.
Alexandra Abrams, Former Head of Blue Origin Employee Communications, and 20 other Blue Origin employees came together in an essay to call out the harsh realities of the working environments within Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ private spaceflight company.
“We believe exploring the possibilities for human civilization beyond Earth is a necessity. But if this company’s culture and work environment are a template for the future Jeff Bezos envisions, we are headed in a direction that reflects the worst of the world we live in now, and sorely needs to change.”
The essay was published in late September and describes the barbaric ways in which “the richest man in the world” pushes his employees to be the best in the industry. Many of these employees spent their lives dreaming of space and joined Blue Origin eager to be a part of history by opening access to space for the benefit of humanity.
However, in the company Bezos has created, the workforce dedicated to establishing this future “for all” is a majority male and overwhelmingly white. All of the senior technical and program leaders are men.
Though private companies don’t have to share diversity numbers, NASA is open with its employee diversity statistics. The agency’s 2020 report shows the imbalance:
- All NASA employees (17,458): 65.8% male, 34.2% female
- NASA Senior Executive Service: 68.1% male, 31.9% female
- NASA general service: 65.6% male, 34.4% female
- NASA senior level: 82% male, 18% female
- NASA scientific / professional: 78.8% male, 21.2% female
- NASA science / engineering: 76% male, 24% female
- NASA administrative: 43.5% male, 56.5% female
- NASA student employees: 62.7% male, 37% female
- Entire federal STEM workforce (333,842): 70.1% male, 29.9% female
- Entire civilian workforce: 51.9% male, 48.1% female
- NASA race and ethnicity breakdown: 72% white or Caucasian; 12% Black or African-American; 8% Asian-American or Pacific Islander; 7% Hispanic or Latino; 1.1% American Indian or Alaska Native
While workforce gender gaps are common within the aerospace industry, at Blue Origin they can also manifest in a particular brand of sexism. There are numerous senior leaders that have been known to be consistently inappropriate with the women they work with. One senior execut ive was reported multiple times to Human Resources for sexual harassment. Even so, he was later made a member of the hiring committee for filling a senior HR role in 2019. There are other reports of a former male executive at Blue Origin frequently treating women in a condescending and demeaning manner—calling them “baby girl,” “baby doll,” or “sweetheart” and inquiring about their dating lives. His inappropriate behavior was so well-known that some women at the company took to warning new female hires to stay away from him while he was in charge of recruiting employees. Additionally, a former NASA astronaut and Blue Origin senior leader once instructed a group of women with whom he was collaborating: “You should ask my opinion because I am a man.”
The disturbing culture within Blue Origin creates a systemic problem—taking a toll on the mental health of those who work tirelessly to make their mission possible. Senior leadership at Blue Origin is known to push employees to their limits using “burnout” as part of their primary labor strategy in order to “get more out of our employees.” Employees are often reminded that they should consider it a “privilege to be a part of history.” Former and current employees have shared experiences they describe as dehumanizing and manipulative. Others have experienced periods of suicidal thoughts after their passion for space was exploited in such a toxic work environment.
Bezos quietly mobilized an initiative to have all employees sign away their right to resolve employment disputes in court or to speak out about harassment or discriminatory conduct.
In 2019, Blue Origin leadership requested that all employees sign new contracts with a non-disparagement clause binding them and their heirs from ever saying something that would “hurt the goodwill of the company.”
“According to experts and whistleblowers, the idealistic nature of space exploration and sharp focus on ‘the mission’ adds to a dangerous dynamic in which women, already a minority in the high-tech workplace, might be willing to put up with unacceptable behaviors to achieve success,” the publication wrote. “If left unresolved, insiders are concerned this culture could someday extend to astronauts on assignment or deep space colonization efforts.”