By Matt Day
The Seattle Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) “As technology giants face scrutiny for their hiring practices, interviews with employees, past and present, help explain why Microsoft has struggled to build a balanced workforce many years after declaring diversity a priority.”
The Seattle Times
In spring 2016, Microsoft was ready to go public with some important data: The company said it had nearly eliminated the gender gap in pay among its employees.
Women made 99.8 cents for every dollar made by men in the same role.
The software giant marshaled a public-relations rollout for the triumphant news, including outreach to the media and an all-employee email.
But at 10:02 p.m. the night before the data was published, a human-resources employee wrote to Gwen Houston, the leader of the Microsoft diversity initiatives, with a warning.
“I expect this to land poorly” the HR manager wrote, citing distrust she was seeing among women at the company when Microsoft discussed its efforts to diversify its workforce. “They’ll look at this as a cover up.”
She was right.
After the announcement, Microsoft’s human-resources chief received dozens of emails from employees picking apart the data. Many said their experiences ran contrary to the upbeat tone of the message. Microsoft, some said, was trying to whitewash a serious gender-discrimination problem that extended beyond pay equity.
The announcement “does not honestly represent us as a company,” wrote one woman, part of a team where men outnumbered women 5-to 1 in its senior ranks.
Another employee wrote: “I’ve seen little change in the day to day inclusiveness of our culture, nor any strategies in action aimed at retaining diverse talent.”
She added, “I am surrounded by men and only men in most of my meetings.”
That is a common refrain among women at the company.
As technology giants face scrutiny for their hiring practices, interviews with employees, past and present, help explain why Microsoft has struggled to build a balanced workforce many years after declaring diversity a priority.
Isolation and impatience
The high-tech industry is under fire for the way it treats women in its workforce.
Jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are held up as career paths of the future, and are among the most lucrative and prestigious careers today.
But the biggest companies in technology have a glaring diversity problem: They don’t employ many women.
The workforce of the five most valuable U.S. technology corporations, Apple, Google parent Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, taken together, is less than one-third female.
Microsoft, based in Redmond, is the most male-dominated of the five.
Interviews with more than three dozen current and former employees and a review of hundreds of pages of court filings and internal documents illustrate why Microsoft has failed to hire more women or retain those within its ranks: Widespread complaints focus on a culture of casual sexism, a male-dominated hierarchy slow to change, and poor resolution of employee grievances.
Some of the documents came to light as part of a lawsuit that alleges discrimination in pay and promotions at the company. Katherine Moussouris, a former Microsoft cybersecurity engineer, sued the company in September 2015. Two other women later joined the suit.
Microsoft’s discrimination cost women up to $238 million in compensation and more than 500 promotions during a four-year period, their lawyers allege, based on an analysis of data provided by the company. They are seeking class-action status, which would give them the right to represent some 8,600 women who have been employed in technical roles at Microsoft in the U.S. since 2012.
The company denies the allegations, saying there is no pay gap in its ranks and that its treatment of women complies with the law. Microsoft also says it has been making progress in making its workplace culture more welcoming to women and people from underrepresented racial groups.
The company’s budget for diversity and inclusion projects, including training, recruiting efforts and other programming, was $55 million this year, up from $13 million a few years ago.
Executives and spokespeople say they are grappling with an industrywide problem. Twitter, Google and Oracle are also facing gender-discrimination lawsuits, and Uber recently settled one.
The Labor Department is investigating Microsoft’s pay practices, has accused Google of withholding information in an equal-pay probe, and has accused Oracle of systemic discrimination against women.
All of the companies have denied wrongdoing.
The skeptical responses to Microsoft’s equal-pay announcement were disclosed in the Moussouris lawsuit, which has brought to light the frustration and isolation that many women felt after years of management promises on diversity issues.
Among the earliest: In 2001, the year Microsoft hired its first diversity and inclusion czar, the company won a court order denying class-action status for a high-profile discrimination lawsuit that would later be settled out of court. Then-human-resources chief Deborah Willingham said the company was “committed to doing even more to promote diversity at Microsoft.”
Women at the time made up 26.4 percent of the company’s U.S. employees.
That total has declined since. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, Microsoft’s U.S. workforce was 24.5 percent female.
Sharon Cunnington joined Microsoft in 1989 after earning degrees in computer science and criminal justice at Washington State University.
She described a college-like atmosphere at the company. “People playing video games and pinball in the hallways,” she said.
Microsoft was just starting its meteoric rise. At the same time, the share of U.S. computer-science degrees going to women was plunging, a phenomenon that some researchers attribute to the marketing of personal computers as toys for boys.
Microsoft, with an insatiable appetite for workers, filled its most important roles with men. And like many companies, Microsoft had a tendency to hire people who looked like those already there.
For women, there was tremendous pressure to adapt to that culture, current and former employees say.
One woman, who joined Microsoft in the late 1990s, recalled some of the first instructions her manager gave her: Dress like the men.
“You have to fit in,” she was told.
She learned to curse, sprinkling profanity into hallway conversations to develop a rapport in overwhelmingly male groups.
“My first week there I cried because I was the only woman (on my team),” she said. “No one looked me in the eye.”
She requested anonymity, as did all 12 current employees interviewed for this article. Microsoft prohibits its workers from talking to the news media without authorization. The company offered informational conversations with people involved in its diversity efforts, but declined to make anyone available for an on-the-record interview.
“Bullying and loud voices”
A defining feature of Microsoft’s culture that dates to its early years is confrontation. It stemmed from the top.
Co-founder Bill Gates was brilliant. He was also relentless in his criticism of errors or what he thought were bad ideas. One of his regular retorts is Microsoft lore: “That’s the stupidest f _ ing thing I’ve ever heard.”
Under Steve Ballmer, the sales executive who succeeded Gates, the tone was similar.
A generation of leaders rose through the ranks with the impression that they needed to be assertive, and pipe up authoritatively even when they might not have anything to add.
“Microsoft has kind of a traditional culture of being very comfortable with bullying and loud voices,” said Barbara Gordon, an executive who left in 2013. “The loudest voice in the room gets the attention.”
Such an environment, sociological research says, puts women at a disadvantage. In group settings, while a man might be seen in a positive light for speaking up, a woman is often viewed negatively if she behaves forcefully. Many women aren’t socialized to thrive in those settings, especially, research shows, when many rooms are male-dominated.
This culture was built into the company’s infrastructure, ingrained in part by a rewards structure that created an incentive for employees to prioritize their individual performance over that of their colleagues.