Moussouris v. Microsoft – Sexism in Silicon Valley

September 22, 2015

On September 16th, Katherine Moussouris filed suit against Microsoft Corporation in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington alleging sex discrimination in the work place. This lawsuit comes after two gender discrimination lawsuits filed against tech giants Facebook and Twitter and the culmination of Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers earlier this year.
Moussouris worked for Microsoft for seven years as a Senior Security Strategist Lead where she directed an industry-leading initiative, the bounty program, which pays researchers to help find security weaknesses in Microsoft programs. She resigned from Microsoft in May of this year and now works for HackerOne.
Moussouris alleges in her complaint that “Microsoft has engaged in systemic and pervasive discrimination against female employees in technical and engineering roles with respect to performance evaluations, pay, promotions, and other terms and conditions of employment.” She further alleges that the cultural gender bias that permeates Microsoft has resulted in less compensation for all women in comparison to men, frequent promotion of men instead of equally or more qualified women, and decreased scores on performance evaluations for women compared to men in similar positions.
According to Moussouris, Microsoft’s discriminatory treatment of women is a result of the company’s employment policies, namely the forced ranking process. In a 2012 Vanity Fair expose, the magazine labeled the Microsoft corporate culture “a toxic stew of internal antagonism and warfare” and blames the “stack ranking system” as a large part of the problem.

Every single Microsoft employee interviewed for the expose cited stack ranking “as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft.”

The system works like a bell-curve where each employee receives a numerical score, 1-5, and each manager is required to give a certain number of each score. Regardless of the success of the team as a whole and the accomplishments of each employee, a certain number of employees were required to be labeled “below average.” This system resulted in an outrageous amount of competition between employees and a hostile work environment. Microsoft employees reported that people would do almost anything to avoid the low rankings including deliberate sabotage of other employees.
“Stack ranking” appears prominently in Moussouris’ complaint. Specifically, Paragraph 40 alleges that she “consistently achieved and usually exceeded her performance goals, and made significant contributions to Microsoft’s business. Yet, as a result of Microsoft’s forced ranking process, Plaintiff received lower performance ratings than her male peers, despite having better performance during the same performance period.” She also alleges that women as a whole systematically fared worse under this system than men. She states in her complaint: “Upon information and belief, female technical employees tended to receive lower scores than their male peers, despite having had equal or better performance during the same performance period.”
While the outcome of this particular lawsuit is yet to be seen, it is clear that more and more women are discontented with their work environment in the tech world. In May of this year Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination lawsuit against Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. In light of her loss in court, Ms. Pao said in a news conference, “If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it.” While her case failed to convince the jury, she succeeded in revealing “a community that casually tolerated an atmosphere where machismo was prized and women often seemed to be relegated to secondary roles.”
It is true that these lawsuits are hard to prove and it’s often difficult to determine if the plaintiff is a brave woman standing up to injustice or someone bitter about losing out on a promotion or a raise. But what is clear is that more and more women are coming forward with their stories of discriminatory work environments and more women are fighting against sex discrimination, like Sheryl Sandburg, Facebook COO, calling for women to “sit at the table” and take a more active role at work.
Microsoft has attempted to make a cultural change under new CEO Satya Nadella and the company stated that it is “committed to a diverse workforce, and to a workplace where all employees have the chance to succeed” in a statement made to WIRED. But Nadella has already been under fire; he told women they should not ask for a raise and instead have “faith that the system will give you the right raise.”
It is obvious that the major Silicon Valley companies are still struggling with pervasive sexism in the workplace. Companies are losing incredibly qualified women as a result of these issues, sometimes issues they are not even aware exist. Women should no longer be excluded from dinner parties because they “kill the buzz,” and men should no longer discuss Playboy, Victoria’s Secret, and other similar topics on business trips (real events revealed in trial testimony of Ellen Pao’s lawsuit).
Kleiner Perkin’s victory in court does not mean that change is not necessary and the status quo should remain. These Silicon Valley companies that achieved initial success because of innovation and risk taking must continue doing  just that and create a revitalized workplace culture that embraces women and helps them thrive.