She Advocated For Women, Then Microsoft Pushed Her Off Its Board

“Are you trying to fucking destroy the company?” Bill Gates asked former board member Maria Klawe when she pushed for diversity.

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For Maria Klawe, the news was shocking but not surprising. After serving on Microsoft’s board for more than six years, and advocating for fair pay and representation for women at the company, she was getting pushed out. The board told her it was looking for “more conventional” women, with business backgrounds, so it was time for her to go. 

“I felt completely silenced and dismissed,” Klawe told me earlier this week. “I had put a lot of effort into Microsoft; I really loved the company.”

Less than a year earlier, Klawe, a computer scientist and president of Harvey Mudd College, sat on stage with Satya Nadella when the CEO made one of his biggest blunders. It was his mistake, yet now she was leaving.

“It’s not really about asking for a raise," Nadella said in a fireside chat with Klawe at the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women In Computing in October 2014. He was answering a question about how women should ask for raises — one he had reviewed beforehand — and told the women in attendance to trust a system that historically underpaid them. Klawe pushed back politely. And almost immediately, the exchange went viral, and not in a good way. Nadella emailed an apology to the entire company shortly afterward.

That, until recently, was the end of the story. But now Klawe is sharing what happened afterward.

Shortly after the conference, Klawe said, Microsoft board chair John Thompson reprimanded her. “He told me very directly that he was very upset that I had, number one, invited Satya to do that interview, and number two, corrected him when he gave the wrong answer,” she said. “He felt that I'd hurt the reputation of Microsoft by doing that.” Thompson did not return a request for comment. 

Less than a year later, Klawe heard from Thompson again. And this time, she was asked to step down from the board. “I was tremendously upset,” she said.

You can listen to my conversation with Maria Klawe on the Big Technology Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice.

Klawe left Microsoft cordially, in 2015, but she’s now telling the story for two reasons. She just turned 70 on Monday, and felt it was important to get the facts out there. And the Bill and Melinda Gates divorce has something to do with it too. “Before their divorce was announced, I was in some ways reluctant to criticize Bill,” she told me. “The criticism could be interpreted as also criticizing Melinda, and I think Melinda has done amazing things. I'm a huge admirer.” Klawe also spoke with Business Insider shortly after the announcement.

Speaking of Bill Gates, Klawe said the Microsoft co-founder wasn’t receptive when she asked the company why it wasn’t considering any women to replace Steve Ballmer as CEO. Its list of 50 candidates was entirely male, she said. Gates blew up at the very question. “Are you trying to fucking destroy the company?” he said, per Klawe. A Gates representative did not return a request for comment. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment. 

Though Nadella ‘Hit Refresh’ on Microsoft’s culture — with much success — it’s difficult to change everything, even over time. As I looked into Nadella’s remarks while reporting Always Day One, I found subsequent reporting showing that poor treatment of women persisted inside Microsoft into 2019, where a long email chain among employees detailed claims of sexual harassment within the company.

“It's a very big company,” Klawe said. “My sense is that — from talking to women at Microsoft — things got much better in some parts of Microsoft, and not so much in other parts. A big part of this is culture.”

Klawe contributed to improving Microsoft’s culture. And then it showed her the door. Her experience underscores how hard it is for a company to usher in wholesale culture change. And now, at least, the full story is out there.

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This Week On Big Technology Podcast: Maria Klawe

Thanks for reading. You can tune into my conversation with Klawe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice.

See you next Thursday!