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

"I felt so alone," she said. On the advice of a mentor, she accepted an eventual layoff instead of fighting back against the manager's harassing comments and what she thought were unfair performance reviews.

"It's like an underground railroad," she said of the people who try to steer employees away from bad managers. She would later return to Microsoft, and today is happy in a more diverse group.

Remedying bias Satya Nadella, in one of his first major public appearances as Microsoft's third chief executive, unintentionally shined a spotlight on deeply held biases in the technology industry.

Asked in 2014 at the Grace Hopper Celebration of women in computing what advice he'd give to women asking for a raise, he suggested they shouldn't ask, and instead trust the system and good karma to reward them fairly.

The backlash was swift. Nadella apologized, and set about expanding Microsoft's programs to recognize and remedy bias and discrimination.

The company implemented an online course designed to highlight unconscious bias _ the only training, aside from a general business conduct guide, required of all employees.

Last year, the company added a new element: a workshop for managers featuring actors demonstrating how bias seeps into common workplace interactions.

Some employees who have gone through that training say it is the first time they've had space at Microsoft to discuss diversity, leading to new conversations and an outpouring of emotion.

As the company has refocused its diversity efforts under Nadella, it has exposed just how far it still has to go.

Microsoft's Office group last year audited its interview process, finding that, in the pool of employees authorized to interview candidates for senior roles, men outnumbered women by a 13-to-1 ratio. Among the employees called in at the end of a successful visit to check whether the candidate was a cultural fit, the entire interview pool was male.

The team disbanded the latter group, starting over with a new set of volunteers balanced along gender lines. Executives also started conducting focus groups with employees from diverse backgrounds.

One participant said she was optimistic at first. In practice, though, the exercise felt geared toward educating white male executives on what it was like to be in someone else's shoes, instead of trying to reform the culture and change habits.

She stopped attending.

"We'll never be done," Nadella said last year of Microsoft's inclusion efforts, in comments to an audience of students. "I would not by any stretch say at Microsoft we have excellence in it."

"I'll say one thing," he went on. "We are going to, every day of the week, push to get better and better at creating that more inclusive culture."

Many employees and outside observers say Nadella has set a good tone. But some remain frustrated by the pace of change, and the fact that some leaders with reputations for bullying or failing to promote women remain at the company.

"I think Satya Nadella is probably the best thing that ever happened to Microsoft," said Ellyn Foltz, a former sales manager who left at the end of 2014. "But having been an executive in the technology industry, you don't make deep, important cultural change without owning up to what's going on. I don't think that's happening at Microsoft."

Lack of support Microsoft says employees who feel they aren't being treated fairly should inform their supervisor, human resources or the company's legal department. The company says it does not tolerate bias, discrimination or harassment, and offers a variety or remedies, from formal complaint processes to anonymous hotlines.

As the #MeToo movement of women sharing their experiences with sexual assault and harassment intensified late last year, Nadella and human-resources chief Kathleen Hogan sent employees an email reminding them of ways to get help and "our absolute commitment to ensuring each and every employee here has a voice, is respected and can do their best work."

Yet many women say they don't trust Microsoft's HR group to give them a fair hearing if something goes wrong. Some cite that perceived lack of support as a reason for seeking work elsewhere.

"HR is there to protect the company's interests," said a longtime Microsoft employee who left the company last year on good terms. In her final year at the company, she says, "I saw a dozen women with very specific grievances and concerns who got zero traction."

Most, she said, ended up leaving their teams, or the company.

In some cases, employees say Microsoft failed to protect them from retaliation after they reported harassment or discrimination, or resolved situations in a clumsy or tone-deaf manner.

In one instance, first reported by Bloomberg News, a Microsoft intern alleged that a fellow intern raped her after a social event in Seattle. She reported the incident to the company and police. No charges were filed.

Both people were subsequently hired to full-time jobs at Microsoft, and their jobs required them to work in close proximity, the woman's lawyer alleged in a 2014 letter to Microsoft seeking a settlement and severance.

Microsoft said in a statement that the company worked to support the employee who had made the complaint, but provided no other details on the resolution of her case.

Another woman alleged that her manager made repeated unwanted advances, propositioning her for sex on company trips and sending lewd emails.

After reporting him to human resources, she was transferred to another unit, only to find that, after a subsequent shuffle of office space, she was posted just two doors down from her harasser, she said in a lawsuit. She developed post-traumatic stress disorder, her complaint said, and left the company.

In another case, a woman told a high-ranking manager that her male supervisor made demeaning comments and gave her unfair performance reviews. Her supervisor found out about the exchange and confronted her: "Who did you escalate to?" he said.

She was unable to transfer to another team at Microsoft, she would claim in a subsequent lawsuit.

Microsoft denied wrongdoing in the two discrimination cases. Both were settled out of court.

Excluding the current class-action lawsuit, at least 16 women have sued Microsoft in state and federal courts for gender discrimination, sexual harassment or gender-related retaliation since 2009.

Microsoft won the only one of those cases that went to trial. Of the rest, it's unclear how many were settled out of court or withdrawn by the plaintiffs, or how the total compares to cases brought against other large firms.

Inside the company, female engineers in the U.S. complained about gender-related mistreatment 238 times between 2010 and 2016, according to documents cited by Moussouris' lawyers. Among gender-discrimination complaints, Microsoft's internal investigators determined that just one of 118 complaints over that period was found to violate company policy.

Microsoft said that tally was misleading, and responded with separate data showing that, during the most recent fiscal year, investigators determined 10 percent of gender discrimination complaints were founded in whole or in part. The company added that it fired about 20 people following sexual harassment investigations that year.

Fuzzy picture "Relative to their size as an employer, we get quite a few calls from Microsoft," said Stephen Teller, a Seattle employment attorney. "A lot of people feel like they've been mistreated."

The full picture is difficult to determine, however.

The company requires nondisclosure and non-disparagement clauses as a condition of employee severance agreements and court settlements, according to former employees and lawyers who advise them. That's a common practice in corporate America.

Meanwhile, one of the company's procedures to address harassment for years included a suggestion that employees should remain silent about their experiences.

When the lawyers on Microsoft's four-person Employee Relations Investigation Team finish a probe, they send the person who brought the complaint a memo outlining whether they found a violation of company policy.

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