Former Gentex employee sues supplier, claiming gender discrimination and retaliation

A former Gentex Corp. project engineer who says she was advised to ask male co-workers to explain things to her to “make them feel better about working with her” has filed a lawsuit against the company.

Elizabeth Helminski is suing Gentex — a Zeeland, Mich., supplier of dimmable rearview mirrors and other electronic components — alleging gender discrimination and retaliation.

Helminski says she was regularly treated differently from her male co-workers. Brian Brackenbury, her supervisor at the time, is also named as a defendant.

Helminski was hired by Gentex in September 2018 and worked in a male-dominated environment, the lawsuit says.

“It was clear in the first couple months of employment that in addition to the males on the leadership team, there was generally a pro-male ‘bro culture’ in the working environment in many departments,” the complaint said.

Helminski believes she was terminated in late September 2019 for raising concerns about the work environment.

The lawsuit was filed April 22 in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Mich.

When contacted by Automotive News for comment, Gentex spokesman Craig Piersma said in an email the company “cannot comment on a pending lawsuit, and it is our company’s policy to not comment on current or past employees.”

Brackenbury did not respond to requests seeking comment.

According to the lawsuit, Brackenbury repeatedly told Helminski in her one-on-one orientation meetings that the company’s leadership team members were “like fraternity brothers.”

In another meeting, Brackenbury suggested Helminski pretend not to understand something so she could ask her fellow engineers to explain the concept to her, but she told him she was not comfortable with that, according to the lawsuit.

The suit also describes an instance in which one of Helminski’s co-workers, a member of Gentex’s diversity council, told her he did not believe in unconscious bias in hiring.

On another occasion, Helminski went to discuss a confidential project with a male co-worker, but he refused to shut the door to the room they were in, according to the lawsuit. Helminski was told it was because the employee had previously indicated his refusal to be alone with a woman to whom he was not married, the lawsuit said.

When Helminski met with Brackenbury in September 2019 for a midyear review, he again suggested she pretend not to understand something, according to the lawsuit. He also advised her to act “more humble” and focus less on her work results and more on building relationships with co-workers, the lawsuit says.

Brackenbury told Helminski her peers complained that she was “pushing way too hard” for diversity initiatives, according to the lawsuit. Helminski said the one thing she pushed for was putting free feminine hygiene products in women’s restrooms.

At that point, Helminski raised concerns about staying with the company, but Brackenbury said he wanted her to continue working there, the lawsuit said.

A three-day sales meeting that month oozed a fraternitylike culture, according to the lawsuit. Male presenters and leaders “roasted” each other, and male Gentex employees made jokes about Helminski, per the lawsuit.

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