Proffering career advice more analogous to The Secret than Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women Work, and the Will to Lead, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told women in the tech industry that asking for what you’re worth isn’t the best way to get ahead.
“It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise,” Nadella told a confounded (and predominantly female) audience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing on Thursday. [Update: Nadella clarified his remarks on Twitter, and then issued a statement apologizing. He’ll also return to speak at the Hopper conference again next year. See below.]
Ascribing to mortals the fictional abilities of comic book heroes, Nadella advised that women embrace their innate “super powers” and confidence, and trust a system that pays women 78% as much as men.
Nadella made the comments in an on-stage conversation with Maria Klawe, a computer scientist, president of Harvey Mudd College, and member of Microsoft’s board of directors. He seemed to suggest that “faith in the system” is akin to magic.
“That might be one of the initial ‘super powers,’ that quite frankly, women (who) don’t ask for a raise have,” he told the straight-faced Klawe. “It’s good karma. It will come back.”
Audience murmurs suggested confusion and displeasure with career advice that both goes against everything women are told in the “Lean In” era, and seems woefully out of touch. The gap in income inequality between men and women in Silicon Valley, where technology is a leading industry, is severely imbalanced, according to a 2014 study by Joint Venture Silicon Valley. The overall gender pay disparity in Silicon Valley is actually worse than the overall United States:
Men who hold graduate or professional degrees earn a whopping 73 percent more than women with the same educational qualifications, while men with a bachelor’s degree earn 40 percent more than women with the same credentials.
Understandably, women in the audience at Arizona’s Grace Hopper Celebration were perplexed by Nadella’s advice.
Microsoft CEO advice for women who are uncomfortable asking for raise/promotion is "trust that the hr system will reward you later"? #GHC14
— Cristina Stancu (@CristinaStancu) October 9, 2014
— Leigh Honeywell (@hypatiadotca) October 9, 2014
— cate (@catehstn) October 9, 2014
Thanks goodness Maria Klawe is there to give women practical advice on asking for a raise, after the male speaker failed. #ghc14
— P. Oppenheimer (@priscillaoppy) October 9, 2014
— Lauren Schaefer (@Lauren_Schaefer) October 9, 2014
— Ingrid Bernaudin (@IngridBernaudin) October 9, 2014
Those “super powers” Nadella talked about were tied into an earlier point in the interview, when he encouraged women to be confident and use their unique talents to be successful in the workplace. Similar advice was doled out Wedneday night during the “male allies,” train wreck panel, which also received lukewarm-to-chilly response.
Saved By Good Advice
Considering Nadella’s thoughtful answers to other issues faced by women in tech, including his reassurance that Microsoft is working towards equality in the workplace, the CEO’s advice for women working on career advancement came as a surprise.
Microsoft released its workplace diversity data last week, and the numbers show the company Nadella took over in February is just as white and male as other tech companies. Twenty-nine percent of the general Microsoft workforce is female, and in the U.S., almost 61% is white. The tech industry has a gender diversity issue, he said, and the real question is what companies are going to do about it.
“I don’t want to fall for the … ‘supply side’ excuse,” he said to cheers from the audience, though he did acknowledge the pipeline of women interested in science and technology is not as big as the pool of men. “The real issue is to figure out how to get women into the organization, and especially, in our case, into our development.”
Nadella also described his own experience with work-life balance, an issue that regularly comes up for women, and sometimes men, who want to become leaders in their companies, but also must balance responsibilities of family life.
Instead of a balance, Nadella suggested that it’s more work-life harmony, and that it’s possible to take charge of your career while still managing family responsibilities.
But his responses went downhill after that, and as soon as he suggested women shouldn’t ask for raises, moderator Klawe jumped in to reassure women that they should be empowered to ask for more money or career advancement.
“First of all, do your homework … know what the appropriate salary is.” Klawe advised. “Then role play, sit down with someone you really trust, and practice asking them for a raise.”
At least someone on stage at Thursday morning’s keynote could speak honestly about the issues. Because, as we all know, karma doesn’t pay the bills.
Update, 2:30pm PT: Satya Nadella later tweeted an attempted clarification of his remarks:
Was inarticulate re how women should ask for raise. Our industry must close gender pay gap so a raise is not needed because of a bias #GHC14
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) October 9, 2014
Update, 7:00pm PT: Nadella, apparently realizing that it would take more than 140 characters to address the situation, has issued a statement to employees—and an apology for his ill-conceived remarks.
Photo by Selena Larson for ReadWrite