Sexual harassment has been a fact of life for most women in the workforce – at least once or twice over the course of their careers. Often taught that this is just ‘how things are’, many figured it was better to grin and bear it. However, a number of Microsoft’s female employees recently decided they were done playing by everybody else’s rules and started sharing their stories with each other via an email string that had started on March 20th.
It grew quickly and dozens of emails with complaints ranging from glass ceiling grievances to verbally assaultive allegations found their way to Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s head of human resources. She has personally committed to look into many of the complaints initially dismissed by HR.
“This thread has pulled the scab off a festering wound. The collective anger and frustration is palpable. A wide audience is now listening. And you know what? I’m good with that,” one Microsoft employee said in the email chain wrote.
While it was the overarching narrative of women-silenced-once-again that garnered all the attention, there was one small, uncelebrated event amongst all the awful experiences that is worthy of recognition.
According to a 2018 article published in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Dulini Fernando and Ajnesh Prasad observed that managers and HR departments have an unfortunate history with attempting to silence women who speak out against sexual harassment at work.
The woman who had initiated the email conversation had sent out a query to female coworkers about career advancement within Microsoft. The author had expressed concern that her gender had factored into her lack of opportunities within the organization and two coworkers responded with supportive messages. A top Microsoft executive saw the string and sent an invitation instead of an attempt to silence:
"I was disappointed to read your email and hear that you have not had a good experience. I am going to set up a time with you to follow up and learn more. I don’t want anyone in my organization, Microsoft, or frankly anywhere to feel this way. I know we have a lot more to do with respect to career planning for datacenter technicians and as a result recently launched the Career hub. My team is working on how to communicate this more effectively and broadly so everyone knows what resources are available. We are also in the process of training our Datacenter managers to better positioned to lead, coach and mentor. I want you to know you have my support."
This executive’s response manages to validate the author’s concerns; offers her an opportunity to dialogue further; highlights some of the company’s ongoing efforts to change things; and acknowledges that work still needs to be done. The executive also encourages the other women on the email chain to approach her if they have their own.
While this does not mend the emotional impact from what has been happening for many Microsoft female employees, it offers a brief – but brilliant – break in an otherwise heavy bank of clouds surrounding women workers.