‘I Felt So Alone’: What Women At Microsoft Face, And Why Many Leave

Microsoft performance reviews for years used a system, popularized by General Electric in the 1980s, called stack ranking, which required managers to grade employees on a curve. No matter how well a team performed, some team member would receive a potentially career-crippling evaluation at the bottom of the curve at review time. (Microsoft switched to a new system in 2013.)

One former Microsoft engineer describes the effect of the old policy.

Her unit was trying to stabilize a behind-schedule project in the early 2010s. Weekly product-review sessions seemed designed to devolve into shouting matches as people competed to dismantle the ideas of their peers. Slip up, and "it was like blood in the water," she said.

"You got brownie points for tearing someone down," she said. If you were the target of the criticism, "You'd have to endure a verbal lashing, in front of everyone, until they were tired of yelling at you. And then the next person got to go."Gordon, the former executive, tried to snuff out those habits during her years leading Microsoft's customer-support group.

She convened her deputies for training aimed at enabling introverts and limiting bullying. "It made a difference for people," she said.

Diversity efforts Change at the company as a whole was slow in coming, though.

For most of its existence, Microsoft was organized into silos around individual business units like the Office suite, online products or small-business sales. The company's diversity initiatives were similarly splintered, with cross-company efforts limited to a guide of best practices and a mandate to employ more women and people from underrepresented ethnic groups, people who were involved in those efforts say.

"It is a ridiculously tough area to make sustainable progress," Gordon said of efforts to bring more diversity to the technology sector.

Microsoft started to respond to workforce diversity issues after its employees organized career-development groups.

Blacks at Microsoft was founded in 1989, and Women at Microsoft followed a year later. The company's human-resources department eventually started providing financial backing for those organizations, called "employee resource groups" in business-speak.

"It was hugely beneficial," said Sabina Nawaz, who, when she started as a software engineer at Microsoft in the early 1990s, was the only female engineer in her building. "Just the ability to connect with other technical women and know I wasn't alone was super helpful."

The late 1990s and early 2000s brought other steps, including hiring a diversity chief, paying employees to attend diversity-related conferences and funding programs to encourage young women to go into high-tech fields. Microsoft also pushed to eliminate pay disparities between men and women.

Sheila Henderson, a former Microsoft sales manager who at one time oversaw 120 people, recalls that, after doling out annual raises and bonuses among her employees, someone from human resources would often come back to her recommending pay bumps for specific employees.

The recipients of those raises, she said, tended to be female employees, people of color, and older employees. It wasn't a problem if she had exhausted her budget. Human resources, she said, would offer "more money out of this pool we've set aside."

"They were concerned with looking at the entire organization and needing to appear they had fairly distributed everything," she said.

Retention crisis Despite the pay bumps, a 2011 memo described a budding retention crisis. The proportion of female senior engineers was falling. And the company was tracking a worrying rise in the number of women at Microsoft's principal level, the gateway to management ranks, who were leaving the company.

Data at the time showed 56 percent of female engineers left the company in the middle stages of Microsoft's career ladder.

The memo recommended steps that had become common prescriptions for the industry's diversity woes, including funding employee groups and highlighting examples of prominent women.

It also suggested that Microsoft encourage female engineers to stay in technical jobs, rather than the company's prior practice of suggesting women pursue "broad business leadership" instead of engineering.

Within a year, Cunnington, the longtime engineering manager who wrote the memo, would leave Microsoft herself. Steeped in a workaholic culture that more than once had her sleeping on the office couch, she was afraid of missing her school-age daughter's childhood.

"I discovered how important family was," she said. So she quit.

At Microsoft, as in many companies, taking time off to care for children can have the practical effect of derailing a woman's career. In general, men often aren't penalized in the same fashion even if they do take time off, researchers say.

On paper Microsoft's family-leave policies, which offer 20 weeks of paid time off for new mothers, have expanded to become among the most generous in the industry.

In practice, those benefits can be useless if there is pressure to stay at work or return quickly after the birth of a child. One employee recalls a warning she received from a manager: Never tell anyone you prioritize your family above the company.

Several current and former employees say that when they're considering switching to a new unit at Microsoft, they vet the teams by how many of its leaders have kids and how common it is for employees to take full parental leave, or even regular vacation time.

Kieran Snyder, a linguist who spent nine years at Microsoft, leaving in 2014, recalls a conversation with a manager when she was a single mother raising a 2-year-old.

Her manager said his wife was out of town and that the experience of caring for their dog alone finally gave him a sense of what Snyder's single-parent days were like.

She transferred to another unit. "He wasn't evil," Snyder said. "But was he leading a team I wanted to work at long? No, he was not."

Others found more support from the company.

Claire Bonilla recalls a meeting of up-and-coming women in her group a decade ago. The unit's vice president asked for a show of hands: Who wanted to make general manager, a big step in the march toward Microsoft's executive ranks?

Bonilla didn't. "I look at how hard the GMs work here, how many hours they put in, and I want a better work-life balance," she told the executive.

The result was a compromise. Bonilla participated in what was then a new job-share program, that, with the approval of her manager, split her role with another Microsoft employee when she needed time to care for a newborn. Her husband, who also worked at Microsoft, did the same after the birth of another child.

She ultimately made general manager, and would stay with the company for years before taking an executive role at a Seattle health-care company.

"Your manager," Bonilla said, "can make or break your career."

Stalled careers Managers are given wide latitude to shape their teams, and the workplace culture varies widely at the sprawling company, which has more than 120,000 employees.

One female computer scientist joined Microsoft after graduating from a prestigious university in the late 2000s. Her first two teams were diverse and professional, geeky and supportive. She earned a spot in one of Microsoft's programs for top performers, and a mentorship with an executive.

Her third posting was different. She found herself one of just a handful of women in her unit, welcomed by hallway chatter along the lines of "Oh no, not another girl."

That group's leaders and top performers would get together regularly after work for cigars and poker. Women, it was clear to her, weren't invited.

"They might as well have had a secret handshake that they did in front of everyone," she said. "It was that blatant."

Facing limited options for advancement, she left Microsoft. Within a few years, so did all of her friends, primarily women and people of color, in Microsoft's group of high-performing young employees.

Another employee, a marketer, recalls an episode with an abusive male manager a few years ago. The women on his team left, one by one.

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