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Female Microsoft employees filed hundreds of complaints of gender discrimination

UPDATED: Tue., March 13, 2018, 4:04 p.m.

Microsoft President Brad Smith speaks during an economic development panel at the National Governor Association meeting on Feb. 25, 2018, in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
Microsoft President Brad Smith speaks during an economic development panel at the National Governor Association meeting on Feb. 25, 2018, in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Female Microsoft employees in technical roles filed 118 complaints of gender discrimination with the company between 2010 and 2016, according to court documents. Microsoft’s internal investigation unit concluded just one of those complaints was “founded,” according to the documents filed by plaintiffs in an ongoing suit against the company.

Adding in complaints of sexual harassment, retaliation and pregnancy discrimination, women at the Redmond-based technology giant formally raised issues about their treatment to human resources a total of 238 times, according to the court documents. The documents didn’t indicate how many of the total complaints Microsoft investigators determined were “founded.”

The scope of women’s complaints against the company was made public Monday as part of an unsealing of documents in an ongoing lawsuit against Microsoft. Three women, current and former Microsoft employees, are suing the company, alleging systemic gender discrimination against women in engineering jobs that led to lower pay and a stunted pace of promotions.

The plaintiffs’ suit seeks class-action status, a designation that could add more than 8,600 women to the case. They say women in the class lost out on up to $238 million in pay and 500 promotions because of widespread discrimination, largely within the company’s performance -review process that determines pay and promotions for employees.

Microsoft has said a class action isn’t warranted because there is no common cause for the employees’ complaints and plaintiffs have not identified systemic gender discrimination. The company has denied that systemic bias is taking place through its employee-review process.

In court documents, the company also has stood behind its internal investigative process, which involves a four-person team that looks into each complaint filed with the company. In a statement Tuesday, a Microsoft spokesperson said all employee concerns are taken seriously and that the company has a “fair and robust system in place” to investigate them.

But in a filing with the court seeking class-action status, plaintiffs claim that employees have “little faith” in the investigative process. In some cases, the plaintiffs say, investigators found that some of the alleged harassment did in fact occur, but “did not rise to the level of a policy violation.”

Microsoft has said that corrective action might be taken even if no policy violation was found, and that the person who filed the complaint might not be informed.

Women in technical roles reported 108 incidents of alleged sexual harassment and assault to the company between 2010 and 2016, court documents say. Three women alleged they were sexually assaulted or raped by male colleagues during that time.

Newly unredacted sections of the plaintiffs’ court filings also show the frustration of some women, citing emails they wrote over the years to managers and executives.

“Our organization is actually empowering a culture of exclusion,” one wrote.

“This cultural backdrop has had a real effect on me,” wrote another, pointing to employees being called degrading terms for women. “I consider myself to be a strong person. I have a strong track record of performance over a long tenure. I should not feel powerless. But I do.”

Microsoft’s case is one of many piling up against giant companies in the technology industry, which has come under fire in recent years for its dearth of female and minority employees and for its culture, which some say is hostile toward those groups.

Other tech companies have generally not revealed the number of internal discrimination complaints filed by employees, Reuters pointed out Tuesday when it first reported the unsealed information in Microsoft’s case.

Lawyers for Microsoft and the plaintiffs have been throwing legal barbs at each other in the case for more than two years, in the form of studies into the company’s review and investigative practices and in testimony from experts in the fields of human resources, gender studies and workplaces.

U.S. District Judge James Robart is hearing the case in U.S. District Court in Seattle and is expected to decide on the class-action request in the next several months.