Michael Wallent, a general manager at Microsoft, will return to work in January as Megan Wallent. He came out to colleagues as transgender last month, first in person and then by email. Wallent says he encountered nothing but support — mixed, of course, with some awkward curiosity. That's unremarkable. Microsoft is located in the progressive Pacific Northwest, where one's less likely to raise an eyebrow at Wallent's self-discovery and more likely to worry about the politically correct term to describe it. (For the record, "sex change" is considered derogatory by many; the preferred word is "transitioning.") He's unlikely to encounter blatant transphobia on the job. He should worry instead about plain old-fashioned sexism. How will Wallent's developers react when they come to work on January 2 and it hits them: They're working for a girl?
Wallent argues, passionately and convincingly, that it won't matter. His track record of shipping products — including Internet Explorer and, more recently, the foundations of Microsoft's Silverlight Web software — are what will count. His reputation as a thoughtful manager, he says, will matter more than his gender.
Wallent believes the stereotype of Microsoft management — the table-pounding, chest-thumping, loudest-voice-wins culture usually caricatured as sweaty, chair-throwing, white-boy-dancing CEO Steve Ballmer — is a thing of the past. What's prized now is a mellower meritocracy, where the best ideas bubble up to the top through managerial encouragement and support. He says the best compliment he's gotten from his charges recently is being called "Coach," one of the most nurturing labels one can put on a man. That praise may become easier when Michael becomes Megan. Goodbye, Coach; hello, Mom.
Wallent hopes that when he comes back to work, "maybe there are some questions, and then we move on and I keep doing the work I've been doing for 11 years." But at 6'2", Megan Wallent will cut a striking figure.
A question not for Wallent, but for his company: Can a woman, transgendered or otherwise, thrive at Microsoft? Has the culture moved away from its testosterone roots and embraced a way that's more friendly to women as managers? In a few weeks, Megan Wallent will find out for herself.