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Microsoft accused of gender discrimination in new lawsuit

It is difficult to talk about workplace equity and diversity - or lack thereof - without mentioning Silicon Valley. Statistics show that the tech industry is predominantly white and male. Some companies and policymakers have been working to rectify this, but progress has been slow.

Unfortunately, being under-represented is not the only problem women face in Silicon Valley. They are also face high rates of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. A recently filed, class-action lawsuit against Microsoft seems to be a good example of this problem.

A former technician for Microsoft has filed a lawsuit and is seeking class-action status. Because Microsoft currently has around 117,000 employees, the pool of plaintiffs could potentially be large.

According to news sources, Microsoft converts individual performance evaluations into numerical rankings. It then uses these rankings to award promotions and to determine pay. On the surface, this may seem like a rational and unbiased approach.

But the plaintiff claims that ratings are based on subjective criteria which tend to favor men and to result in lower rankings for female employees. As an example, the woman says less-qualified men were promoted before her because supervisors allegedly did not like her "manner or style."

Studies have shown that when men speak their mind and aren't afraid of confrontation, they are likely to be viewed (by men and women) as confident leaders. Yet women who display the very same behaviors are often labeled as "pushy," "abrasive" or "bossy."

To some extent, these disparities point to much larger bias problems that affect society as a whole. But if Microsoft and other companies are using criteria like this to rank employees, they need to recognize and control for these biases.

Whenever a high-profile company faces a lawsuit alleging discrimination or harassment, it provides an opportunity for public discussion of these important issues. No matter how this lawsuit is ultimately resolved, we must hope that it encourages all companies to examine their own practices and potential biases.

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