‘An atmosphere of disrespect’: Being a woman at Tesla’s AGM

Attendees at the electric vehicle maker's 2022 meeting share their experiences and thoughts on how to make AGMs more inclusive.

This article is part of a week of coverage by Responsible Investor to mark International Women’s Day 2023. 

“OMG… every woke white woman wants to hop on the stage…”   

God, this Karen” 

“Another woman”   

“Good grief! She’s crazy!” 

“One woke Karen after another on this call…” 

“What a Karen”  

“Shut her down” 

“LMAO, this lady is a CLOWN” 

international womens day 2023These are a sample of the posts during a live stream of Tesla’s annual general meeting in August 2022.  

Sadly, comments such as these might not surprise online – but the electric car maker’s in-person meeting was also problematic, with a male-dominated audience jeering female proponents of shareholder proposals without censure by the company’s representatives. 

Tesla’s AGM came just a couple of months after Aviva’s CEO, Amanda Blanc, was on the receiving end of misogynistic comments from shareholders at the insurer’s AGM. 

A LinkedIn post by Blanc at the time that condemned the remarks attracted more than one million views. In it, she expressed surprise that such comments are now being made openly at a public event such as an AGM. 

“This type of stuff used to be said in private, perhaps from the safety of four walls inside an office,” she said. “The fact that people are now making these comments in a public AGM is a new development for me, personally.” 

Kristin Hull, founder and CEO of US investor Nia Impact Capital, was the only shareholder proponent to attend the Tesla meeting in person.  

When it comes to exploring sexism, Hull says that a particular instance cannot be separated from the fact that society is patriarchal, “particularly the US”.   

She points out that when women attend such events, they are often in small numbers – a situation compounded in the case of a company such as Tesla, which is “kind of a bro show in general”.

One of the first issues that Hull flags from the AGM is the fact that Tesla’s team cut off the camera when it was her time to speak – a decision she describes as “odd at best”. 

“There were cameras everywhere,” she says. “It felt like a very conscious decision because they were very capable, and everybody else in attendance who spoke was on camera.” 

Hull describes the atmosphere at the meeting as “uncomfortable”. Her firm’s shareholder proposal called for greater disclosure from Tesla on its use of mandatory arbitration, which requires employees to settle claims with the company rather than through courts. 

There was no jeering while Hull read her proposal, but others were not so lucky – perhaps, she suggests, because it is easier to “dehumanise” someone when they are not physically present. 

The other proposers, six out of seven of whom were women, were represented at the meeting by a white screen with “shareholder proposal” written across it, rather than a live stream or even a picture. 

Their speech was also “garbled” by Tesla’s audio, Hull says. “Mine was clear because I was there in person and had to use the same audio that they provided to their own speakers.”   

Hull questions whether a company on the cutting edge of technology like Tesla would suffer such issues accidentally, describing it as “disturbing”.   

Child labour proposal

Laura Campos, director of corporate and political accountability at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and Sister Winifred Doherty of the Good Shepherd Sisters, who also filed proposals, were on the receiving end of the loudest cheers and clapping from the audience when the meeting chair interrupted them to say their allotted three minutes was up. 

Campos’ proposal was on Tesla’s corporate lobbying and Doherty’s was on child labour in supply chains.  

“I would say anything that was anti-Elon [Musk] was what was getting heckled,” Hull says. 

As with corporate culture, Hull questions whether an AGM culture is needed. “It is the responsibility of the company to set a tone and culture of these meetings where women feel safe to stand up and sing a praise or state an issue, even if that is problematic for the company,” she says. 

Attending virtually, Julia Cedarholm, ESG research and shareholder engagement at Arjuna Capital, put forward the US investor’s board diversity proposal at the meeting.  

“We believe there’s a culture of systematic sexual harassment and racial discrimination at Tesla, and we want to put women and more minorities on the board to overhaul that,” she says.   

Cedarholm adds that it was “interesting” to see aspects of that culture on display at the meeting.   

Beyond lack of diversity, Tesla’s board has also not done enough to rein in its CEO, Hull says. “This CEO has shown misogyny, sexism, racism, all of the ‘isms’, very publicly, more so than any other CEO,” she says. “And the executive team and the board have done nothing that we can tell, nothing overtly that investors can see, to rein him in. So why would the AGM be any different?” 

An atmosphere like the one at Tesla could also serve as a barrier to attendance, Cedarholm warns. “Entering such an atmosphere of disrespect is unheard of for investors presenting shareholder proposals. Who wants to come and present if they’re going to be heckled by hundreds of other people?” 

She adds: “As investors, we will not be intimidated by those tactics – but it’s disconcerting to say the least.”   

Multiple attempts were made to contact Tesla for this piece but no response was received.

Attendance and stewardship

This matters because attendance at AGMs matter. Stewardship expert Deborah Gilshan says that a debate around the importance of AGMs as a stewardship tool is “overdue”.  

Gilshan, now an independent adviser on stewardship, is a veteran of AGMs from her career at three UK institutional investors, including UK pension fund Railpen. 

“Investment stewardship is more than voting and engagement through private dialogue,” she says. “It has to be about the use of all of your shareholder rights, including the ability to attend and speak at an annual general meeting in person. This right is one of the most under-utilised stewardship tools, including for escalation.”  

Gilshan is also the founder of gender equality network The 100% Club.  

She acknowledges that sexism is not something she has personally experienced at AGMs. At the same time, she says: “If more inclusivity allows people to express their opinion and increases the participation of all types of investors, including institutional and retail, then that will be very positive.” 

Reflecting on whether the behaviour at Tesla’s AGM resulted from sexism or a conflict of values, Doherty tells Responsible Investor: “I think I experienced what I consider to be a male-dominated, toxic environment. I don’t think I am able to separate out sexism, exploitative attitudes and the whole issue of greed and the need to make a profit, no matter what the cost.”   

When asked if she is planning to re-file this year, she says that, owing to Tesla shifting its meeting date, the window for filing was missed. The remaining option is for her to present the proposal in person.

“I’ll be there,” she says. “We can’t let this kind of thing down one’s spirit or to turn us away. I think this is the very heart of advocacy – you keep persisting and you keep turning up.”