SAN FRANCISCO — The backlash against the tech industry-wide push to hire more women and minorities has flared again — this time at Microsoft.
Some employees on an internal message board questioned the tech giant’s efforts to shift the demographics of its largely white and Asian male workforce, asking for evidence that a diverse workforce benefits Microsoft. Eighty-seven percent of Microsoft employees are white or Asian and more than 73 percent are men, according to the company’s most recent diversity report.
“Does Microsoft have any plans to end the current policy that financially incentivizes discriminatory hiring practices?” asks one post written by a female engineer on Yammer, the internal message board. “To be clear, I am referring to the fact that senior leadership is awarded more money if they discriminate against Asians and white men.”
The criticism, first reported by online news service Quartz, is similar to a highly publicized dust-up at Google in 2017 when James Damore was fired from his engineering job after writing a controversial memo on an internal message board taking issue with the search company’s efforts to address the shortage of women and underrepresented minorities in its ranks, arguing that the low number of women in engineering roles reflected biological differences.
Growing the ranks of women and people of color is a pressing challenge for the tech industry, whose customers are increasingly diverse. Research is piling up that companies with diverse workforces fetch a higher market value and returns. Tech companies say they need more workers from different backgrounds to brainstorm and build better products for a global marketplace.
At the same time, people from underrepresented groups are being excluded from technical and non-technical positions in one of the nation’s wealthiest, fastest-growing and highest-paying sectors. Yet the nation’s largest technology companies have struggled to reverse decades of hiring practices and to make their corporate cultures more welcoming to women and people of color.
The debate on an internal message board at Microsoft, which began simmering late last year and earlier this year, highlights ongoing tensions in the tech industry over diversity and inclusion programs.
“We still lack any empirical evidence that the demographic distribution in tech is rationally and logically detrimental to the success of the business in this industry,” one Microsoft employee posted, according to Quartz. “We have a plethora of data available that demonstrate women are less likely to be interested in engineering AT ALL than men, and it’s not because of any *ism or *phobia or ‘unconscious bias’ — it’s because men and women think very differently from each other, and the specific types of thought process and problem solving required for engineering of all kinds (software or otherwise) are simply less prevalent among women.”
After Damore’s firing from Google, some employees accused the company of penalizing him for expressing his personal beliefs. His dismissal was widely condemned by conservatives who accused the company of silencing dissenting viewpoints.
Other employees argued Google had done too little to advance women and other underrepresented groups or to regulate hate speech and harassment at Google. And they accused Google of not doing enough to shield them from a harassment campaign that subjected them to hateful comments and violent threats.
The incident sparked a culture war inside the company. Damore filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Google. Another former employee sued, claiming the diversity push discriminated against white and Asian men.
The anti-diversity messages on Microsoft’s internal message board come at a difficult time for the company. In recent weeks, women employees began sharing stories of harassment, discrimination and unequal pay on the message board, alleging the company had done too little to resolve these issues.
On Monday, CEO Satya Nadella responded in a company wide memo to 130,000 employees. “I’m disappointed to hear about any behavior in our workplace that falls short of the diverse and inclusive culture we are striving to create,” he wrote. “But I’m encouraged that people feel empowered to speak up and demand change.”
He pledged a number of steps including overhauling how human resources investigates these cases. He also warned employees that they would all be held accountable for making Microsoft a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
“This past year, we increased our commitment with a new core priority on inclusion for every employee,” he wrote. “If you are not helping to create an inclusive culture, your rewards, your career trajectory and possibly even your employment will be impacted,” he wrote.
Microsoft declined to comment on the message board threads, but told USA TODAY many of the comments were made by two dozen or so employees. Three executives posted responses on the internal message board, which also contained comments that were supportive of the company’s diversity efforts, according to Microsoft. Quartz reported that one of the most active threads challenging the diversity efforts had more than 800 comments.
Internally, some employees criticized Microsoft for not challenging or taking down their colleagues’ comments. “HR, Satya, all the leadership are sending out emails that they want to have an inclusive culture, but they’re not willing to take any action other than talk about it,” one employee told Quartz. “They allow people to post these damaging, stereotypical things about women and minorities, and they do nothing about it.”
Read more USA TODAY coverage: Diversity, equity and inclusion in the tech industry
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Some Microsoft employees allege policies ‘discriminate’ against Asians, white men