Wonder Women in the Rude Boys' Paradise

Microsoft upgrades its treatment of women to corner the only market that matters: talent.

Bill Gates is pissed. "You've studied it and studied it and decided that it's turning bits on and off! And it's a BRILLIANT INSIGHT! ... And then there's this relationship with Hewlett-Packard that we KEEP SCREWING UP! ... What about this bullshit thing with no definition!"

He's in a small, crowded conference room on the Microsoft campus with 20 young Microsofties gathered around an oblong table. Most are unkempt; some are unwashed; all are uncomfortable. As they sit around the table, stand along the walls on three sides of the room, or perch on a cabinet along one wall, most look at their chairman with outright fear, if they look at him at all.

The sour smell of sweaty terror fills the room. Through the acrid aroma of armpit, a few noteworthy figures stand out. There's a young man, skinny, pale, and hairy, wearing thick glasses and a khaki jacket -- a dead ringer for Animal, the Muppet drummer, but without the muscles. Another one has an unnaturally fleshy face that looms out of his long-sleeved white shirt and tight black jeans like a genie emerging from a stovepipe. Still another looks oddly like ... a woman.

A closer look reveals the fact that she is a woman. The only female in the room, she's a tiny Chinese immigrant, wearing a T-shirt and a cardigan sweater, and sitting just two chairs away from Gates. What makes her different from the others in the room is not only her sex, but also her courage: she's the only person not afraid to look at Gates as he goes ballistic.

One of the engineers stands at an overhead projector at the end of the room opposite Gates, puts in a slide, and gets exactly five words out of his mouth before Gates cuts him off with a string of obscenities. The hapless programmer's hands start to shake uncontrollably; he drops his stack of slides, picks them up, tries to insert another into the projector. This time it's upside down. He starts to talk again, but Gates cuts him off, shouting more obscenities at him. Finally he sits down and one of his more composed teammates takes a turn.

For the better part of an hour, this keeps up. Someone timidly offers Gates a proposition. Gates screams at him. Someone tries a rebuttal. Gates screams at him. The pattern is unbroken -- except twice. Each time, it is the young, soft-spoken Chinese woman who directs comments at Gates in mid-tirade. Both times, no one but Gates seems to understand her -- her voice is barely audible, and English appears to be her fourth language, after Chinese, C, and C++. Both times, her remarks seem to have a mildly calming effect on Gates.

The second time she speaks Gates listens intently, his gaze directed down at the table. He's silent for a long moment. Then he gives his victims an unqualified endorsement: "Okay," he says quietly, "this looks good. Go ahead" -- and abruptly ends the meeting. His prisoners flee, afraid he might suddenly change his mind and begin berating them again.

Later, Gates explains why he put on such a display only to let his employees proceed with a plan that had sent him into a rage. Some of his rationale is standard-issue Gates-speak: the project is "super-important," the discussion was preceded by "tons of e-mail," and the meeting only confirmed much of what he'd already known. Then he offers an unGatesian explanation. "Did you notice that girl?" he asks. "That Chinese girl? Mai Lin? Well, she was the smartest person in the room, and from the way she explained their strategy, I figured they knew what they were doing."

That episode dates back to 1991, when Microsoft was a rude boys' paradise, where interpersonal skills counted for nothing, personal hygiene even less, and the presence of women was barely tolerated. So it was not surprising that Gates would refer to his female employee as a "girl." What was surprising was that he would pay as much attention to a girl's brains as to a boy's.

Yet behind Gates's awkward explanation is the story of Microsoft's remarkable transformation -- from a towel-snapping boys' locker room where high-school high-jinx were the norm to a workplace where the future growth of the company rests in the hands of the women who run the Interactive Media Division. The importance of the transformation, however, goes well beyond the confines of the Microsoft campus. When computers, software, and other high-tech industries emerged as the future of the American economy a decade or so ago, the expectation was that, at last, women would get a fair shake in the workplace. Where the metal-bending economy of manufacturing had always shunned women as ill-suited for the factory's heavy lifting, the digital world was, by definition, mind over matter. At last meritocracy would replace the old boys' network.

It hasn't turned out that way. When the software business started to grow, the geeks were all guys. Nowhere was it more the case than at Microsoft in its early days, when the company suffered -- or, more accurately, enjoyed -- a reputation throughout the industry as a place that disdained women.

A typical engineer's office interior looked like an Animal House dorm room: soft-drink cans piled around a computer terminal; a bit map of a nude woman retrieved from a company server displayed on the computer screen; pornographic posters tacked onto the walls; and crude, dirty jokes posted on the outside of the office door. Women who were at Microsoft in those days remember vividly the "German Excel" poster: commissioned by Microsoft's German division, the advertisement featured smoke, leather, chains, and a nearly nude Teutonic dominatrix. It wasn't just the poster that Microsoft women found offensive; it was its apparent endorsement by their employer.

Today in a remarkable transformation, Microsoft has made itself into what is arguably the best place in the business for women to work. Very simply, Microsoft has adopted as a strategy the goal of cornering the market on female engineering talent.

The company guards its hiring data as jealously as it protects its code. One informed estimate puts the total number of women working at Microsoft at more than 4,200 out of a worldwide workforce of more than 19,600. Mike Murray, director of human resources, notes that roughly 32% of Microsoft's U.S. employees are female. Murray refuses to say what percentage of the company's software engineers are female: "We don't give that out." He does say that in 1995 women accounted for 21% of Microsoft's "technical hires," while only 14% of computer science graduates that year were women.

Even more remarkable than the numbers, however, is the undeniable power the women of Microsoft wield in determining the company's future. Through almost an accident of history, the Interactive Media Division, created in a February 1996 reorganization to supersede the Consumer Division, is run by women. Patty Stonesifer, a senior vice president, heads the division; of her five direct reports -- handling responsibilities from the Microsoft Network to kids and entertainment to marketing -- four are women, including Melinda French, a.k.a. Mrs. Gates, who tanked the launch of Microsoft Bob but won the heart of Microsoft Bill. In fact, so prominent are women around the Redmond, Washington headquarters, that the Interactive Media Division is called "the girls' division." But today, it is the girls' division that will decide the boys' fate.

With the corporate PC market slowing to an annual 10% growth rate, Gates is depending on the fast-growing consumer market to propel Microsoft into the 21st century; by the year 2000, industry forecasts say, 50% of U.S. households will own PCs. Recently it is this Interactive Media Division that has been the fastest growing part of the Microsoft empire, ramping up from only 5 or 6 products in 1992 to nearly 70 products in 1995, surging to nearly 1,000 employees, outgrowing its space on the old campus, and moving to its own five-building campus. If the women of Microsoft come through, the division will reach the $1 billion revenue mark in 1998 and chalk up a growth rate better than 20% per year.

In the rawest of terms, it is that competitive challenge, rather than any surge in political correctness, that has spawned Microsoft's transformation. Becoming gender-neutral is not about winning the hearts of women; it's about winning market share. "It's really just smart business for us," says Murray. "It's a way of creating competitive advantage and superior products."

Microsoft understands the nature of competition in the software industry like no other company. Outsiders see the business as a competition for markets and dollars. Microsoft sees it as a competition for talent. The company's approach to engineering and corporate strategy has always been to "pour IQ," as Gates puts it, into a knotty problem or competitive crisis. The company with the most brains wins. In remaking his company into something even a woman could love, Gates has simply added one more weapon to his arsenal in the fight for software engineering and design talent.

It may seem hardly worth the trouble to redefine your company just to make it attractive to a mere 14% of the country's computer science graduates. But it is impossible to overstate the importance of the contest to attract the best talent in the high-tech industry. Ann Winblad, managing partner of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners in Emeryville, California, says, "The secret of Microsoft's success lies in its recruiting." According to Jeff Bezos, founder of the Seattle-based Internet bookstore Amazon.com Books, "A great programmer and just a good one can differ from one another by a factor of 100." With multiples like that at stake, the company with the best men -- and women -- wins. And ultimately, Microsoft is about winning.

Early Microsoft: Release 1.0

Back in the company's rude-boy days -- not so long ago -- Microsoft numbered a few hundred employees in a single building alongside Highway 520, just across Lake Washington from Seattle. In those heady days the rise of the programmer had spawned an odd, almost other-worldly culture, a universe parallel to the dominant world of work -- but with everything backward. In this digital workspace, all the manners, traits, and attributes that used to get you shunned in traditional society became badges of belonging. Bad clothes, bad hair, bad breath, bad complexion, bad manners -- were all suddenly good! It was geek liberation -- with stock options!

This was an intentionally impolite society, a true revenge of the nerds, and the only women in it were a few beleaguered English majors who'd been hired to edit technical manuals for products like Microsoft BASIC. Those uncomfortable women worked in one separate wing, fending off awkward visits from male programmers who, with a distinct lack of finesse, were looking for action.

A time capsule would have captured scenes such as these:

It's 1982. A 19-year-old programmer wearing a fringed leather jacket and glasses thicker than radial tires is asking Jan Allister, a 40-year-old female editor, for a date. "Listen," he says, "I was wondering if you wanted to come out tonight and watch my band play."

"For God's sake!" she explodes, "I'm married...and moreover, I'm old enough to be your mother!"

A long pause. He stands there with a blank uncomprehending stare. Is she telling the truth? Or does she just not want to go out with me?

It's 1985. Four young men are wheeling a huge cake on a table into a conference room on a Friday afternoon. They summon their coworkers, who file into the room. There are two women and fifteen geeks. The leader of the group begins a manic speech in praise of one of his team members. Suddenly the cake opens up and a woman clad in bra and panties jumps out and delivers a bump-and-grind performance on top of the table. The two women workers slink into a corner of the room, acutely embarrassed.

It's 1990. Abigail Riblet, a woman hired to edit science articles in Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia, learns what it's like to be "discovered" by geeks. Riblet, who happens to look like a brunette version of Botticelli's Venus, spends her first days on the job anchored to her desk, fending off a constant stream of developers who come stumbling into her office, clumsily asking her out.

One night Riblet's friends are alarmed to hear her shouting from her office: "Don't you ever talk about anything but sex?!" They rush to her office door to see Riblet glaring angrily into her computer monitor. Perched on a corner of her desk is an archetypal geek, looking both embarrassed and incapable of embarrassment. What exactly was it that he'd said that was so wrong?

It's 1993. Two male software developers in T-shirts and shorts decide to take a recreation break. They position themselves outside the office of a female graphic designer and pepper her closed door with nerf balls fired from a gun. They continue the assault relentlessly, while the woman sits at her desk inside the office, sobbing.

Finally it's 1995. Two men and a woman are standing in a hallway, going over a technical problem related to multimedia authoring. The woman, Libby Dunkin, a technical evangelist, is wearing a ragged red sweater and blue jeans. Her hair appears not to have been combed for a few days. She asks the man facing her a series of technical questions. Instead of responding to her, the man looks at the man standing next to Dunkin and says, "Okay, should I contact your assistant here when we're ready to go ahead?"

The man next to Dunkin explodes: "You dumb fuck! She's my manager!"

"He got really righteous about it," Dunkin later says, with an indulgent laugh. "I didn't have to do a thing." Having been at Microsoft for nearly eight years, Dunkin's seen the change that's come over the company. "It's gone so far now that if someone even thinks they've said something that offends you, they catch themselves and start apologizing before you have a chance to say anything."

Microsoft Upgrades: Release 2.0

Microsoft's transformation began in the late 1980s, when Bill Gates recognized a coming crisis, a product of the company's phenomenal success: the business market for computing that had propelled Microsoft's growth was starting to mature. The company either had to find completely new markets for its software or watch its growth -- and with it the rise in its stock -- begin to level off. The answer was obvious: in May 1992, Gates set up a Multimedia Publishing Division, directing it to come up with CD-ROM titles so engaging that the home market would open up as Microsoft's next target of opportunity.

But CD-ROMs for the home are fundamentally different from word-processing and spreadsheet programs for companies; for one thing, they have a far greater aesthetic component. That meant that Microsoft had to recruit large numbers of artists, writers, and editors to collaborate with its engineers. Most of those new recruits were women. And so, from the beginning, Multimedia was a division apart from the rest of the company.

Later in 1992, in one of Microsoft's seemingly endless reorganizations, Multimedia was merged into a new Consumer Division, which moved into Building 10 on the then-22 building campus. Consumer took off, growing at 60% per year. It went from 50 employees in 1992 to 800 employees in 1996 -- when it morphed into the Interactive Media Division -- and from only 5 products shipped to 70 products shipped. The division also began to generate significant sales: $773 million in 1995 and a projected $911 million this year -- nearly one-sixth of the company's total 1996 revenues.

From the beginning, the division was dramatically different from the rest of the company. Gone were the hovels of the software engineers, with their darkened offices littered with empty soda cans and scattered computer parts. Instead there were clean, well-lit offices decorated with fine-art posters and occupied by young women with found-objects dangling from their ears. In the office of the protypical boy engineer there'd be a mangled Homer Simpson doll with a golf ball violently embedded in its face. In the girls' division, the desks would invariably display a framed picture of parents, boyfriend, husband, or baby.

By 1995, there was a critical mass at the then-Consumer Division and the word was out: Consumer was the place at Microsoft where it was easiest to balance work life and family life. "If you have a family," says Nicole Mitskog, a long-time Microsoft engineer, technical evangelist, and marketer, "Consumer is the place to work."

The burgeoning ranks of women had another effect: a counter-offensive launched by the women to insist on appropriate behavior in the workplace. An early protester against male insensitivity was Therese Stowell, an engineer who came to Microsoft in 1987 after graduating from Brown University, and who only recently left the company to lead a software development team at Sony Corporation. Arriving at Microsoft, Stowell, who cultivates a punkish appearance, including, at times, whitened hair and black fingernails, found herself one of only three female engineers in the Systems Division.

As soon as she settled in at Microsoft, working on the company's most important project at the time -- OS/2 -- Stowell confronted the company's environment. "I remember going into another developer's office pretty early on," she says, "and he had some kind of girlie calendar on the wall, and I told him I really didn't appreciate it. We got into it. He couldn't understand why it made me feel uncomfortable. He accused me of being intolerant. He was an unreasonable jerk. So after that, whenever something like that happened, I would just tell HR, and they would handle it."

Stowell also helped found an organization called Hoppers, named for Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, one of the pioneering women in computing. In an environment in which the few women scattered throughout the company felt isolated and estranged, Hoppers offered a network through which they could connect with one another and offer each other advice, comfort, and counsel.

Gradually the message began to get through: these women meant business. At the same time, the company itself began to heed some of the changing signals. Microsoft adopted a policy prohibiting using server space to store pornography; server space and other corporate resources were extended to support the Hoppers group. Early in 1993, the company launched a "diversity training" program, designed to teach some manners to the wild-at-heart rude boys. The goal of the sexual harassment sensitivity training program, says Human Resources Director Mike Murray, was to eliminate "locker room behavior that was laughed at when you were 17 years old, but that is inappropriate in a professional work environment."

Now at least once each year, every Microsoft employee attends seminars to discuss certain "scenarios" that involve a range of social and sexual issues from the simple -- whether or not a Microsoft male should hold the door open for a Microsoft female -- to the more complicated -- whether or not to ask about someone's sexual orientation, and how. The seminars, which last from two to three hours and cover five or six scenarios, are Microsoft's crash course in interpersonal relations for the socially challenged geeks.

Generally, the Microsoft culture promotes a rebellious image among its geeks. Trained to follow an unyielding digital logic, they adopt an attitude that suggests they answer only to a higher authority -- like math. No one can tell them how to decorate their offices or compel them to attend a stupid seminar on sexual harassment. But the threat of termination at Microsoft carries with it consequences more severe than at other companies. Being fired at Microsoft not only means loss of job, salary, and benefits, but also forfeiture of unimaginably enriching stock options. The threat makes the company's workforce -- for all of its apparent brashness, youthful irreverence, and aggressive informality -- remarkably docile. The males of Microsoft might grumble about the seminars, but they all attend.

The new political climate at Microsoft is responsible, in part, for the earnest confusion that governs the relations between the sexes as men and women fumble toward a common understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behavior. For example, when a young woman in the then-Consumer Division was about to get married, her coworkers, all female, hung a photograph of a male nude on the wall over her computer terminal. When the group's manager, also female, saw the full-frontal nude, she immediately declared, "That has to come down!"

Microsoft 96: Industry Standard

In a business where the name of the game is to own "the standard," the real test of Microsoft's treatment of women is to compare it with the industry standard -- which, to judge from the experiences of Microsoft's women when they venture off campus, verges on the Neanderthal. Deb Black, who was hired away from Bell Northern Research four years ago to lead testing on successive versions of Windows NT, still registers visible shock when she recalls a visit she made to a Ford Motor Company research lab, which was bidding against Microsoft for her services. "I had to walk into a lab," she says awkwardly, "where there was a poster on the door of a woman without many clothes on, with the doorknob positioned in a really weird way. And you had to open this door to go into the lab." She chose Microsoft over Ford.

While it is routine for women to be involved in key strategic initiatives for Microsoft, it is just as routine for them to be ignored or snubbed when they meet their male counterparts from other companies. Nicole Mitskog's story is typical of talented female engineers with a number of years at the company. Mitskog first started working for Microsoft as a student at Texas A & M, evangelizing for Microsoft FORTRAN in college engineering departments. In 1988 she went to work for the company as a systems engineer who could write and troubleshoot software for Microsoft's customers.

Mitskog went on to supervise teams of Windows engineers at Microsoft, to lead development of Multimedia Viewer, the company's first multimedia authoring program, to manage development of Microsoft Publisher, now one of its leading consumer titles, and to inaugurate Microsoft's now-extensive series of CD+ titles.

What sticks most in Mitskog's mind, however, when she looks back over her career, are the slights she has experienced outside of Microsoft. "I would always be taken for a secretary at first," she says. "All the meetings I went to with people from other companies were always exclusively male. You always had to know more than everyone else, be on top of everything." She remembers vividly a 1993 meeting with executives from Time Warner, who were exploring a joint venture with Microsoft. She'd been asked to explain Microsoft's multimedia authoring strategy. When the two groups convened for the meeting, the Time Warner representatives shook hands with everyone in the room -- except Mitskog. "When they got to me," she says, "they would just smile."

Currently the reigning senior technical woman at Microsoft is Cindy Kasin, who began working at the company 13 years ago as a test engineer and now heads a unit providing support to Windows developers from other companies. She is a blunt-speaking woman who sits behind a desk bearing the sign: "Wonder Woman Works Here." When she arrived at Microsoft, she was one among 800 employees; at the time, she says, there was little to indicate that her new employer was more enlightened than its competitors. Instead, Kasin maintains, growth pressures on Microsoft were so severe that the company had to find talent wherever it could; discrimination became a luxury it couldn't afford. Moreover, she says, male and female software engineers are more like each other than either is like the rest of the world; their shared difference is more of a bond than their sex is a barrier. "We never bothered with that stuff," she says of gender discrimination, "because we were all just nerds together."

It's a point that other Microsoft women chime in on. "You have to be aggressive, proactive, direct, in-your-face, get the job done and feel free to yell and be yelled at," says Sabina Nawaz, who came to Microsoft from Smith College by way of the University of Massachusetts. Adds Libby Dunkin, "You have to learn to get an edge on, get to the point very fast, and understand quickly."

In fact, the most fundamental fact of life about Microsoft's women nerds may be that they are as much nerds as they are women. The female nerd, like her male counterpart, exhibits all the classic traits of archetypal young American software developers: a uniform tendency to talk rapidly in short, clipped sentences; to stare at some vague spot in the center of the table or on the floor when talking with you; and to manifest a repetoire of facial tics, random grooming habits, and bad manners. Spend a few minutes with one, and you realize that what you had assumed was a function of male arrested development has nothing to do with sex. It has everything to do with software engineers, male and female.

What that suggests is that Microsoft, by making itself hospitable to talented, focused women, has secured another valuable monopoly -- one the Department of Justice would probably applaud: a monopoly on a significant part of available software talent at a time when talent is terribly scarce and ultimately determinative of competitive success. Any competing company that sets out to recruit digital women will discover that much of the best available female talent has already been signed by Microsoft -- and made to feel welcome there.

At this point, Microsoft, sensing an advantage, is not about to relax. "I met with HR a couple of weeks ago," says Sabina Nawaz. "They were asking me what else they could do in recruiting and campus advertising to help sell Microsoft as a good place for women. They want to get even more of the limited pool that's out there."

Fred Moody writes on technology, social change, and rock 'n' roll for "The Seattle Weekly." A long-time observer of Microsoft, he is author of "I Sing the Body Electronic" (Viking, 1995), a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Microsoft's Encarta Encylopedia.

Sidebar: The Matron Saint

If Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper were alive today, she'd probably be a software engineer at Microsoft. According to an obituary published after her death in 1992, Hopper "never suffered fools or bureaucracy gladly, preferring straight talk, a steady diet of unfiltered cigarettes and a can-do attitude."

During her 43-year Navy career Hopper earned recognition as a computing pioneer who contributed to the creation and acceptance of high-level languages and assisted in developing the Mark I, the first large-scale digital computer. She also coined the term "bug" to describe mysterious program malfunctions -- after a two-inch moth fouled up one of the Mark I's circuits.

In 1990, when the female engineers at Microsoft were looking for a matron saint, they embraced Grace Hopper as their icon, and formed a group in her name. Hoppers helps its members advance in a number of ways: it holds discussion and study groups on a variety of technical subjects; identifies emerging Microsoft technologies; schools Microsoft women on the ins and outs of performance reviews at the company; and counsels women on sexual harassment.

While the group continues to have meetings, much of its business is conducted online. It operates through three e-mail aliases: Hoppers, through which it conducts ongoing conversations on topics of interest to its members; Hopanon, to which women can submit anonymous postings and get advice on problems from other members; and Hoppals, through which sympathetic men can lend support.

At its founding, Hoppers saw itself as an organization for disaffected women, standing in opposition to the policies and general management approach of the company. A short six years later, Hoppers has become a virtual partner with management on most issues. Microsoft now funds some Hoppers events, provides the group with computer hardware and company server space, and contributes money to its scholarship fund for promising young women in computer science.

Despite its general support for Hoppers, Microsoft has clearly drawn the line on certain Hoppers issues -- for example, refusing to provide on-site and after-hours day care. Indeed, Microsoft Human Resources is so opposed to day care that Director Mike Murray even suggests that implementing it would likely cause the Death of Microsoft: "We have a great sense of urgency in what we're doing. So we're not going to suddenly say, 'Oh, we need to be family-friendly,' and end up making program additions to the company, the net effect of which would kill Microsoft."

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