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.
Big Technology is a weekly newsletter dedicated to covering the tech world with honest, nuanced reporting. Join the 10,000+ subscribers who tune into Big Technology for tech news without the spin. Here’s an easy way to subscribe:
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.
Meet Big Technology's Headline Sponsor: Flatfile
In business, speed is a crucial competitive advantage. Just ask Tablecloth. The company provides ESG and impact analytics reporting for foundations, private equity firms, and impact investors. They do it by using data — lots of it — sourcing it from hundreds of investments and thousands of data points, in thousands of different formats.
One key to Tablecloth’s success has been working with Flatfile to convert all that data into usable insights quickly. “Flatfile helped us cut the amount of time we spent wrangling with data files by 95%, saving us tens of thousands of dollars.” says co-founder Kelly Abbott. Working with Flatfile helps them solve inefficiencies, stay fast, and ahead of their competition.
Facebook is testing drastic changes to Instagram to make it more like TikTok (CNBC)
Instagram believes it’s losing ground to TikTok, and it's starting to turn itself into TikTik. Reels (a direct rip-off) was the first step. But Instagram is now starting to experiment with inserting posts from accounts you don’t follow into your feed, relying on its algorithm to determine what you’ll enjoy (just like TikTok). It's also starting to test more full-screen video, another TikTok staple.
These bold moves show Instagram — Facebook's crown jewel — believes it needs to reinvent itself again to stay relevant. Every platform has its moment, and Instagram has had two: its original photo-sharing phase, and the more recent "Stories" phase, where it copied Snapchat.
The moves are wise — all tech companies must reinvent continuously to compete. But the risk here is that Instagram might turn itself into an amalgamation of features that don't form a coherent product, just like Facebook did with its main app. If Instagram messes this one up, Facebook won't have another popular social media app to fall back on.
Twitter Pledges to ‘Fully Comply’ With India Internet Rules (Bloomberg)
As social media companies grow more powerful, more governments will try to constrain them. That's what's happening in India, where the Modi government is forcing Twitter (and its fellow social apps) to appoint a chief compliance officer and a grievance officer who will handle requests for content takedowns from law enforcement. In India, laws passed this year require social media firms to take down content 36 hours after receiving a legal order.
Twitter fought the new rules. Then, it almost lost its liability protection and gave in, declaring it would comply. Governments across the world are likely watching this unfold and could follow India's lead. Trump's lawsuit against the social media companies made headlines this week, but this is a more serious threat.
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!