What UK tech startups can learn from Microsoft’s alleged sexism

The tech titan has been accused of having a male-dominated culture where women struggle to have their voices heard

What UK tech startups can learn from Microsoft’s alleged sexism

From James Damore’s anti-feminist memo to female founders finding themselves fighting against investors’ sexism, Silicon Valley still struggles with gender equality. And now another industry leader has found itself facing a wave of criticism for allegedly nurturing a culture where women are treated as second-class employees. But while it’s certainly discomforting, at least UK tech entrepreneurs can learn from the story.

Despite having made several public efforts to be more welcoming towards women and having even declared to have successfully bridged the gender pay gap in 2016, it seems as if Microsoft could still have a long way to go. While Microsoft may have bridged the pay gap, which a lawsuit in 2017 argued it hadn’t, it seems as if the tech titan’s problems extend far beyond equal pay.

Having looked at several court filings and interviewed both current and former employees at the computer company, The Seattle Times has unearthed a culture Microsoft would’ve probably preferred to have kept buried.

According to the publication, the problem can be tracked back to the 1990s when Microsoft fell into the same trap as many of its contemporaries in the San Francisco Bay Area: hiring people who looked like the staff already working there(read white and male).

The consequences of these early mistakes have allegedly been the establishment of a culture where female employees were left crying because they were the only women in their teams, feeling stigmatised for taking maternity leave, not being included in extracurricular activities like poker evenings and facing limited career-advancement options.

Even more troubling, several women allegedly felt they couldn’t trust Microsoft HR team to handle cases of sexual discrimination, despite the company openly trying to make it clear that it wouldn’t tolerate sleazy behaviour or biases. As a matter of fact, at least 16 women have sued Microsoft for gender discrimination, sexual harassment or gender-related retaliation since 2009.

However, Cathy White, director of GeekGirl Meetup UK, the outfit organising meetings for women in tech, isn’t surprised by the story. “This sort of behaviour is nothing new and not shocking,” she says.

White argues that the main lesson entrepreneurs in Britain should take on board following the story is to recruit more women and enable female workers to succeed. “The pool of talented women companies are trying to hire from is limited and one of the best ways to ensure you bring on talented women comes down to what you can do to retain them and promote them,” White says. “We need to see other women [succeed] and happy.” 

She adds that tech businesses also have to take a close look at their culture. Do they offer flexible working? How about maternity leave? What about equal pay and chances to learn? “This cultural shift needs to be top down and bottom up,” she says. “Let the bottom do the mentoring or ‘reverse’ mentoring. Have your senior team actually listen – not to a company-wide email addressing a problem but to one person who is impacted by the problem and allow them to speak freely. Don’t let improving your company culture be a marketing activity, do it because it is the right thing to do and lead by example.”

But changing the overall culture in tech is far from easy. “Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to address the inequality in the tech sector, says Jonathan Richards, CEO and founder at breatheHR, the HR-software developer. “Although there are some firms doing great things and putting equality and inclusivity at the heart of their culture, a lot of firms – as Microsoft and Uber have shown – aren’t taking this seriously enough. Or like the case of Microsoft, don’t even appear to allegedly know there is a problem.”

“Of course, as a business scales to huge sizes, it’s unrealistic to expect to still have conversations with each individual employee but this is an excuse startups cannot use. Communication is key in tackling inequality and if you’re too big a company to dedicate the time do so, you must make it a priority for managers and other senior management.”

To build a pipeline of talented women, Charlotte Allery, solicitor in the tech team at Coffin Mew,   the law firm, advises tech startups to engage with more local schools and universities and to take a serious look at their recruitment practises. “[Businesses] should consider whether their recruiters and headhunters are behind the same initiative and actively seeking a diverse mix of candidates from the outset,” she says.

Commenting on the news, Stephen Frost, author of Inclusive Talent Management – How business can thrive in an age of diversity, says: “The tech industry is so male-dominated that men unconsciously benefit from network effects and women are penalised by them. Men in tech never have to walk into a room of women talking about stereotypically female issues but the opposite is most women’s daily-lived experience. When you are an outsider it requires more effort just to attain the same norms. We can call this minority stress, something majority groups never have to endure. It is why a culture change is needed.”

Given the lack of shock from these revelations, it’s clear that something is still rotten in the state of tech. Fortunately, the next generation of startups can help remove the stain of sexism.

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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