Gay and lesbian at Microsoft – Microsoft Corp

Sally J. Clark

For the lesbians and gay men in the computer industry, Microsoft is a terrific place to work, say those who do–if you don’t mind the grueling. hours and if you stay away from some pockets within the company that aren’t so pink. The Redmond, Wash.-based software and interactive media firm, which has come to dominate these industries over the past few years, offers a nondiscrimination policy that includes a sexual orientation clause (since 1991) and health benefits for the domestic partners of its gay and lesbian employees (since 1993).

But that’s only the beginning. Microsoft pays medical and dental premiums for a partner’s children. The company gives money to its gay employees group (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Employees at Microsoft, or GLEAM) to support the group’s participation in events such as Seattle’s gay pride parade and the Northwest AIDS Walk. And employees who give money to nonprofit organizations, including gay and lesbian groups, see their donations matched by Microsoft up to $12,000 per year–per employee.

All that should not suggest, however, that a sincere concern for gay issues exists throughout the corporate hierarchy, some critics caution, adding that Microsoft’s key motivation has always been remaining competitive. Regarding the company’s decision to offer domestic-partner benefits, for example, Tina Podlodowski, 36, a former Microsoft director-general manager who is now a Seattle city councilwoman, says, “What ended up pushing Microsoft to do it was Lotus doing it. It’s not like Microsoft did it out of the goodness of their heart.”

Greg Hullender, a GLEAM board member and development manager at Microsoft agrees: “The policies aren’t necessarily out of any progressive enlightenment. It really grows out of the industry’s obsessive nature with calculation–facts without opinion. To pay attention to anything outside, other than as an interesting conversation topic, is irrelevant to the work. And the work is the bottom line.

GLEAM catered to that perspective in 1992 when it pulled together the facts and, through lobbying and mass canvassing by E-mail, made the issue of domestic-partner benefits more than an interesting topic of conversation. Senior diversity manager Randy Massengale, who started with the company in 1992, recalls that GLEAM had done its homework: “They determined that the costs to the company would be incremental and that it would be a competitive advantage that we needed to attract people and keep them here.” Ultimately, the vice president for human resources presented a set of options to the chief financial officer and to Bill Gates, the chairman and CEO. “Bill did sign off on it,” Massengale says. (Gates was not available for an interview for this article.)

The business rationale for Microsoft’s pro-gay policies relates to the nature of the software industry’s workforce. Gates’s empire feeds on a constant supply of young (i.e., willing to work consecutive 16-hour days), creative thinkers. “I worked in investment banking previously, a very closeted industry,” says Microsoft recruiter and GLEAM member Joseph Vansyckle, 25. “In that type of environment, very little change is involved. In software, everything changes all the time.”

That constant change gives the industry its reputation for accepting and making into millionaires people who were considered “different” by their school peers. Within a company as large as Microsoft, however, the power of such pro-diversity thinking vanes greatly, depending on an individual’s seniority level, which division he or she works in, and in what state or part of the world that division is located.

“Microsoft is a great place to work, depending on where you work,” says Soraya Bittencourt, a 36-year-old GLEAM member and group program manager for Expedia, an interactive travel site on the Web. “In interactive media you can be who you are. Programmers also are more geek-oriented and open to new different things.”

GLEAM cofounder Barbara Grant, 33, concurs. “If you’re here in Redmond, on campus, with your own office, your own E-mail, and job security, Microsoft is a great place to work,” Grant says. “However, we have manufacturing internationally and product support offices in Dallas and North Carolina where it’s still illegal to be homosexual.” State sodomy laws don’t affect Microsoft policies on paper, but they do reflect how those policies are regarded within the local culture.

As you might expect, lesbians at Microsoft say they experience more discrimination than gay men. One factor, says Grant, is gay men’s ability to blend in better: “It’s difficult to distinguish with one’s gaydar the straight male computer nerd from the homosexual male computer nerd. Being a lesbian, though, means being excluded from higher levels at Microsoft.”

Still, overt bias is extremely rare. Seattle employment attorney Suzanne Thomas says, “I hear a lot of negative things about Microsoft’s work environment, but problems with sexual orientation discrimination aren’t among them.” Bittencourt says that’s easy to explain, however: “If you’re intelligent and prejudiced, you know how to avoid doing something that would be classified as sexual orientation discrimination.”

Of Microsoft’s 23,000 employees, approximately 350 subscribe to GLEAM’s mailing list. Are the remaining gay and lesbian workers closeted or simply content? Hullender theorizes that for every out GLEAM subscriber, there are one or two “GLEAM buddies”–people who receive information from members but who don’t want to subscribe either because the volume of E-mail they already receive is too great or because they’re afraid to come out. Hullender says, “I know that people are thinking, Even if Microsoft is really, really reasonable, what if I establish a reputation for being out and then I change jobs to another employer that’s not so reasonable?”

Out magazine founder Michael Goff, recruited last summer to Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, found himself in a similar circumstance when he went job hunting this past fall as a high-profile gay publisher. “There are a number of major media agencies in New York who would have hesitated before hiring me,” says Goff, 31. “Microsoft didn’t, and I’m in a senior, public position. It is not an issue. They care about what you do here.”

Emphasis weighs heavily on the word do. Employees say the demands of working at Microsoft raise the question “How you can have a gay lifestyle if you have no time for any lifestyle at all?” Goff, promoted in January to editorial director of the Interactive Services Media Division, has been on board for a few months now but still knows little about his coworkers’ lives, gay or straight. Hullender concludes, only half-jokingly, “Who cares who you’re sleeping with? It’s not like you actually have a social life.”

Still, Bittencourt, who came to Microsoft from Lotus, says, “If I had to compare it to any other company I ever worked for, Microsoft is still the best place.” Goff’s assessment is both more generous and more ambiguous. Microsoft, he says, is “possibly the most interesting company to be working at in the 20th century.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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