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Microsoft to make public investigation into claims of sexual harassment, including those against Bill Gates

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Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer, Satya Nadella, looks on during the Future Decoded Tech Summit in Bangalore on Feb. 25, 2020.
Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images/TNS

SEATTLE — Microsoft will review its policies on sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and release the findings of investigations into allegations against senior leaders, including Bill Gates, the company pledged Thursday.

Microsoft will hire an outside law firm to conduct a review assessing the company's practices, benchmark those policies against "best practices" adopted by other companies, and look at the steps Microsoft has taken to hold employees and executives accountable, the board of directors announced.

The review will culminate in a public report — expected this spring — that will include data on the number of sexual harassment cases investigated, as well as their resolutions.

"Our culture remains our number one priority and the entire Board appreciates the critical importance of a safe and inclusive environment for all Microsoft employees," Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella said in a prepared statement.

"We're committed not just to reviewing the report but learning from the assessment so we can continue to improve the experiences of our employees."

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The report follows a shareholder directive passed last year. The resolution called for a report on the effectiveness of the company's workplace sexual-harassment policies in light of claims of sexual harassment, including allegations that Gates sought inappropriate relationships with employees.

Microsoft said it received a complaint in 2019, while Gates was on the board, that he attempted to start a romantic relationship with an employee in 2000. The board investigated, but said last year the process wasn't concluded because Gates stepped down as a director.

In 2019, several allegations of sexual harassment at the company also surfaced in an email thread among employees. The report coming this spring will include a review of concerns raised in that thread, the steps Microsoft has taken to respond and additional steps that could strengthen safeguards.

Long before that thread, employees at Microsoft began pushing the company to address workforce-diversity issues: Blacks at Microsoft was founded in 1989, and Women at Microsoft followed a year later.

In 2016, after the company released data that it had nearly eliminated the gender pay gap among employees, women pushed back, reporting their experiences ran contrary to the upbeat tone of the message and claiming Microsoft was trying to whitewash a gender-discrimination problem.

One woman wrote to the human resources department that the announcement "does not honestly represent us as a company."

According to Seattle Times reporting in 2018, complaints against Microsoft focused on a culture of casual sexism, a male-dominated hierarchy and poor resolution of grievances.

Those complaints are not uncommon among women working in science, technology, engineering or math.

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Roughly 22% of women working in STEM fields reported they had experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a 2018 study from Pew Research Center. About 74% of women working in computer jobs said they had experienced gender-related discrimination at work.

In 2021, women made up nearly 30% of Microsoft's workforce.

Moving quickly to act on the shareholder resolution and then release a report just a few months later shows the initiative is likely a priority for Microsoft, said Darla Stuckey, the president and CEO of the Society for Corporate Governance, a nonprofit based in New York.

Roughly 78% of shareholders voted in favor of the resolution, a level of support that is hard for a company to ignore, Stuckey said.

"The way the law works is (shareholders) can't really tell businesses how to run their business," she said. "But they can ask for reports on what they're doing."

Microsoft has hired law firm Arent Fox to conduct the review. The Washington, D.C.-based firm represents global corporations, local and national politicians and large nonprofits.

©2022 The Seattle Times. Visit seattletimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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