Microsoft’s #MeToo reckoning: female employees speak out against workplace harassment and discrimination

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Microsoft was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen 44 years ago today on April 4, 1975. A lot has changed for the company since then in terms of its incredible growth story and inclusive business practices but some ghosts from its Silicon Valley bro culture past continue to linger.

In 1978, the company started with eleven employees out of which only two were women; Andrea Lewis, technical writer, and Maria Wood bookkeeper; making women’s representation at 18 percent but with zero core engineering roles. Even with just two women, Microsoft was in troubles for its sexual conduct policies; Maria Wood left the company in 1983, suing it for sexual discrimination. She then disappeared from professional life to raise her children and volunteer for good causes. Andrea Lewis also left at almost the same time, eventually becoming a freelance journalist and fiction writer.

Content note: this piece contains references to sexual harassment and abusive behaviors.

As of June 30, 2018, the combined percentage of women who work at Microsoft and LinkedIn stood at 28 percent. For Microsoft alone, the percentage of women stood at 26.6 percent. The representation of women in technical roles is 19.9 percent and in leadership roles is 19.7 percent. The percentage of female interns at Microsoft stands at 42.5 percent in the past year. These numbers do not include the temp and contract workers at Microsoft.


Diversity within Microsoft

Source: Microsoft Blog

Recently, Microsoft women employees shared their experiences on sexual harassment and discrimination they faced in the company in an email chain. According to Quartz, who first reported the news after reviewing more than 90 pages of emails, this chain has gained notice from the company’s senior leadership team.

This chain, which started on March 20, was instigated Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s head of human resources. It was intended to be a way of organizing workers and raising the problems with CEO, Satya Nadella.

In this regard it was successful. The company turned the weekly all-hands meeting on Thursday into a Q&A session where employees could discuss the toxic work culture and address the Microsoft leadership directly about the accusations that emerged in the thread. According to Wired, roughly 100 to 150 employees attended the Q&A in person, with many others watching via a live stream. Some female and male employees at the event wore all white, inspired by the congresswomen who wore “suffragette white” to the State of the Union in February.

Responding to the concerns raised in the meeting, Nadella was  apparently empathetic and expressed sadness and disappointment.

Hogan responded to the email chain on March 29 writing, “I would like to offer to anyone who has had such demeaning experiences including those who felt were dismissed by management or HR to email me directly, I will personally look into the situation with my team. I understand the devastating impact of such experiences, and [Nadella] wants to be made aware of any such behavior, and we will do everything we can to stop it.

What allegations of sexual harassment and abuse emerged in the Microsoft employees’ email thread?

One Microsoft Partner employee reportedly wrote in the email that she “was asked to sit on someone’s lap twice in one meeting in front of HR and other executives,” stating that they didn’t do anything in response to this violation of the company’s policy. “The person said that he did not have to listen and repeat the request a second time,” she wrote, according to Quartz. “No one said anything.”

Another female Microsoft employee said that an employee of a Microsoft partner company threatened to kill her during a work trip if she didn’t engage in sexual acts, according to Quartz and Wired reports. “I raised immediate attention to HR and management,” she wrote, according to Quartz. “My male manager told me that ‘it sounded like he was just flirting’ and I should ‘get over it’. HR basically said that since there was no evidence, and this man worked for a partner company and not Microsoft, there was nothing they could do.”

Another ex-Microsoft employee shared her story on Twitter.

Another employee who had worked on the Xbox core team reportedly said in the email chain that being called a “bitch” was common within the company. She said the word had been used against her on more than one occasion, and even during roundtables where female members of the Xbox core team were in attendance. “Every woman, except for 1, had been called a bitch at work.”

“This thread has pulled the scab off a festering wound. The collective anger and frustration is palpable. A wide audience is now listening. And you know what? I’m good with that,” one Microsoft employee in the email chain wrote, according to Quartz.

The problem is far bigger than Microsoft – it’s the whole tech industry

Sadly, reports of discriminatory and abusive behavior towards women are common across the tech industry. It would be wrong to see this as a Microsoft issue alone.

For example, according to a 2016 survey, sixty percent of women working in Silicon Valley have experienced unwanted sexual advances. Two-thirds of these respondents said that these advances were from superiors – a clear abuse of power. Even a couple of years later, the report is a useful document that throws light on sexism and misogyny in an industry that remains dominated by men.

According to court filings made public on Monday, this week, Women at Microsoft Corp working in U.S.-based technical jobs filed 238 internal complaints about gender discrimination or sexual harassment between 2010 and 2016. In response to these allegations, Kathleen Hogan sent an email to all Microsoft employees.

Kathleen Hogan criticised

In a medium blog post, Mitchel Lewis, criticised Hogan’s email. He wrote “an embarrassing 10% of [Microsoft’s] gender discrimination claims and 50% of their harassment claims, each of which had almost 90 or so instances last year, were found to lack merit by ERIT, which is a team comprised almost exclusively of lawyers on Microsoft’s payroll.”

He adds, “But as a staunch feminist, Kathleen did not address the fact that such a low rate of dignified claims can also serve as a correlate of an environment that discourages people to step forward with claims of abuse as it could be the result of an environment that is ripe for predation, corruption, and oppression.”

April Wensel, the founder of Compassionate Coding, shared her views on Twitter, both before and after the story broke out. Earlier in March, she had been at the receiving end of (arguably gendered) criticism from a senior male Microsoft employee who set up a Twitter poll to disprove Wensel’s observation that many tech workers are unhappy.

Wensel noted, “The unchecked privilege is remarkable. Imagine trying to create positive change trapped in an organization that supports this kind of behavior.”

Microsoft Workers 4 good, a coalition of Microsoft employees, also tweeted showing support:

The group had previously posted an open letter to Microsoft CEO in protest of the company’s $480 million deal with the U.S. Army to provide them with Hololens2.

Other people also joined in solidarity with Microsoft’s female employees:

Moving forward: keep the pressure on leadership

How Microsoft chooses to move forward remains to be seen. Indeed, this is only a part of a broader story about an industry finally having to reckon with decades of sexism and marginalization. And while tackling it is clearly the right thing to do, whether that’s possible at the moment is a huge question.

One thing is for sure – it probably won’t be tackled by leadership teams alone. The work done by grassroots-level organizations and figures like April Wensel is essential when it comes to effecting real change.

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Content Marketing Editor at Packt Hub. I blog about new and upcoming tech trends ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development.