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Microsoft's Redmond campus. (Archive photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images, via Microsoft.)
Microsoft’s Redmond campus. (Archive photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images, via Microsoft.)

The number of women employed by Microsoft has dropped from 29 percent to 26.8 percent of the company’s workforce since 2014, standing in stark contrast to the more-inclusive employee base that the company has been focused on building for the past year.

However, gender diversity on Microsoft’s senior leadership team — which reports directly to CEO Satya Nadella — has reached an all-time high, consisting of 27.2 percent women, according to updated statistics released by the company on Monday. That’s up from 20 percent at this time last year.

Microsoft's Gwen Houston
Gwen Houston, Microsoft’s general manager of diversity and inclusion.

Gwen Houston, Microsoft’s general manager of diversity and inclusion, tells GeekWire that the company was “really surprised” by the companywide decline in the percentage of female employees, but she said it was mostly due to sweeping layoffs in Microsoft’s phone hardware business. Those cuts hit a lot of overseas factories where devices are built, which disproportionately employed women, she said.

But even when you just look at the technology jobs, where the gender gap has historically been the most pronounced, a Microsoft spokesperson said the percentage of female workers dropped by about 0.2 percent, essentially remaining flat over the past year.

“That was less of a progressive outcome than we were hoping to see,” Houston said, adding that “we want to get this thing turned in the right direction.”

The declines come as Microsoft joins a push across the technology world to put a larger focus on diversity and the issues women face in a male-dominated industry. Microsoft became a focal point of the conversation last year, when Nadella famously suggested that women shouldn’t ask for raises but instead wait for the system to reward them. The comments sparked widespread criticism and an apology from Nadella.

Nadella has said he learned from his mistake, and spent the past year working to address diversity issues at Microsoft. The company now releases its workforce statistics each year, and talks publicly about internal changes aimed at moving the needle.

Houston says the new stats show that the “targeted and intentional” focus on diversity has taken root at the top of the company. Now, the goal is to “cascade” that progress to lower-level managers who handle the bulk of the hiring decisions.

In terms of racial diversity on the company’s executive team, the percentage of black and Latino corporate vice presidents has climbed from 4.5 to 6.4 percent.

The company also reported that 30.6 percent of all university hires are now women, up from 27.7 percent last year. In the U.S., the percent of university hires who are black increased from 2.5 to 3.3 percent.

Houston says this is good news for the “pipeline problem,” as Microsoft is working to lay the foundation for its next generation of workers.

“We and many of our peer companies are doing that, and we’re starting to see results – definitely not as quickly as we would like, but we’re starting to move in the right direction,” Houston wrote in a Monday blog post.

Overall, Houston said the statistics show signs of promise, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

“In a company the size of Microsoft, making dramatic changes in terms of our overall workforce composition is an undertaking that cannot be over-stated,” she wrote in the blog post. “Our cultural transformation will not take place overnight. It will take steadfast commitment, accountability, targeted actions – and time.”

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