Microsoft caught in crosshairs of gender discrimination claims amidst #MeToo movement

Microsoft logo at Ignite
Microsoft logo at Ignite (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft Logo

Microsoft Logo (Image credit: Windows Central)

I have made it my business to report on the admirable efforts Microsoft has made to embrace overlooked populations such as African Americans and people with disabilities. Hiring practices, support organizations, scholarships, intentional product design and more have been infused with Microsoft's inclusion mission.

Connecting Black History to a Microsoft Future honored African Americans during Black History Month. Microsoft's AI platform, Cognitive Services and innovative apps have helped people with blindness and deafness. Hiring practices have reached people with autism and other disabilities. The company has helped children with Cystic Fibrosis and taught children who are blind how to code. Project Emma is helping people with Parkinson's Disease. And Microsoft helped give people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) their mobility.

Microsoft's inclusion efforts have earned it a prestigious award

With such an admirable portfolio of inclusion efforts that suggests Microsoft's culture nurtures honoring the value of all people, how is it that hundreds of women have alleged the company has sexually discriminated against them?

"Me Too"; what women are saying

In 2015 a proposed class action lawsuit, which could cover more than 8000 women, was filed by former Microsoft employee Katherine Moussouris (Moussouris v. Microsoft) claiming a range of acts of discrimination.

The #MeToo movement has emboldened thousands of women and men to expose the sexual misconduct of celebrities, leaders of industry, high profile individuals and the neighbor next door. And it is the pervasive backdrop amplifying the claims of hundreds of women who are accusing Microsoft of various forms of sexual discrimination.

Between 2010 and 2016 nearly 240 women at Microsoft have reportedly made, according to Reuters:

  • 108 complaints of sexual harassment.
  • 119 complaints of gender discrimination.
  • Eight complaints of retaliation.
  • Three complaints of pregnancy discrimination.

Furthermore, four women submitted individual sexual harassment complaints about a male employee they each claimed touched them inappropriately. And another male employee was investigated for harassing behavior in a separate case. In both these cases ERIT, Microsoft's internal investigation unit, did not find that the alleged conduct was a policy violation. In fact, of the 119 gender discrimination claims leveled against the company Microsoft's internal investigation determined that only one was founded.

Of course, we don't know the facts of any of these claims and are not in the position to determine their legitimacy. But it has only been since December 2017 that Microsoft ended a practice of forced arbitration in gender discrimination cases which traditionally favors the corporation. (Notably other claims like racial discrimination are still subject to arbitration).

Forced arbitration favored Microsoft

Arbitration is a private form of dispute resolution that avoids the court system. It originated to expedite disputes in the corporate sector. Over the years it has evolved into a system that leverages the power of multibillion-dollar corporations to compel individuals to comply with arbitration decisions rather than seeking resolution via the courts. Such cases are hidden from the public, excluded from class-action claims and makes it difficult to find out about sexual misconduct claims in corporations.

Sadly, this systemic means of dispute resolution, even in the case of sexual discrimination claims, usually results in decisions that favor corporations like Microsoft. Thus, if applicable here, it is not surprising that Microsoft's own investigations haven't yielded any self-incriminating findings.

It's also not surprising, given this system, that Microsoft stated that the plaintiffs didn't identify practices that impact enough employees to warrant a class action suit. And of specific discrimination claims that women have been passed over for pay raises or promotions Microsoft said that plaintiffs were unable to provide one example of a violation of company policy.

As a further defense against these claims, Microsoft touts the $55 million a year it spends on inclusion efforts. I've highlighted and celebrated those varied investments. Still, if the allegations against Microsoft are true, perhaps the portion of those millions allocated to promote character qualities in employees to preclude sexual harassment and discrimination were insufficient for the task. Or perhaps it is a problem that runs deeper than even copious amounts of money can reach.

Microsoft, make it right

Microsoft, if your culture is such that sexual harassment and discrimination are as present, as these allegations claim, make it right. No company is perfect, but no company should be so imperfect that harassment and discrimination against women is acceptable within the company's culture. Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith admitted that the #MeToo movement has led Microsoft to examine itself and listen to its employees. Michael Subit Moussouris' lawyer wrote:

Company records indicate that women at Microsoft are sexualized by their male managers and co-workers, leading to a substantial number of incidents of alleged sexual harassment, and even several incidents of sexual assault, that often go unpunished.

I concede that these allegations from hundreds of women over the span of several years are as yet unproven in the courts. But if they are true, I submit that it would be more consistent with the image of a company that has publicly committed to a mission of inclusion and helping others to do more, to make it right.

The other option is investing money and time and manipulating legalese to villainize these women in a strategically executed public fight. In the context of a world permeated with the voices of the #MeToo movement, even if you win, Microsoft, in the court of public opinion you may lose.

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!