Mini-Scandal on Microsoft CEO on Gender and Pay

Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella encouraged women not to ask for raises, and this comment was very unpopular.

So, you know, for women who aren’t comfortable with asking for a raise or sort of saying — who aren’t the younger you, let’s say, what’s your advice for them?

Satya Nadella: You know, the thing that perhaps most influenced me in terms of how do you look at the journey or a career, there was this guy whose name was Mike Naples. He was the president of Microsoft when I joined. And he had this saying where he would say, “Look, all HR systems are long-term efficient, short-term inefficient.”

And I thought that that phrase just captured it. Which is, it’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.

And that, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have. Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person that I want to trust. That’s the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to. And in the long-term efficiency, things catch up.

And I wonder — and I’m not saying that that’s the only approach, I wonder whether taking the long term helps solve for what might be perceived as this uncomfortable thing of, hey, am I getting paid right? Am I getting rewarded right? Because reality is your best work is not followed with your best rewards. Your best work then has impact, people recognize it, and then you get the rewards. And so you have to somehow think that through, I think.

Here’s my take on what happened:

  1. What he meant to say the first time was that he doesn’t think anyone should ask for a raise. I would not call this a sexist notion; I’d call it a traditional notion that does nothing to combat sexism. That’s worthy of criticism, but maybe not all the criticism it got. It shouldn’t have made his views appear sexist, but it does ignore the pay gap between men and women and make him seem like he has no thought toward the issue.
  2. Then the moderator, Maria Klawe, made a mistake, which was not to go back to her preceding point and force Mr. Nadella to reconcile his comment with the pay gap. Ms. Klawe should have asked, “But what about the pay gap?” The point is that, to combat inequality, we need to take active steps, like routinely be prewired to ask whether women are getting paid enough and whether (in a particular division, say) they are being compensated equally relative to men of comparable positions and experience.
  3. Then the furor happened. Part of why this happened is that, even though you can control the words that come out of your mouth, you can’t control the context in which your word will be interpreted. Media training in (in)action.
  4. Then Mr. Nadella apologized the first time, saying he was “inarticulate.” His tweet: 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 I took this tweet to mean basically the following: When I gave that answer the first time, I wasn’t thinking about the pay gap. [Maybe] I was thinking about an individual [since he was, indeed, talking about a hypothetical individual], not the overall gap. I agree that we need to do things to address the gap.
  5. The furor continued.
  6. Then he apologized again, in this memo:

Toward the end of the interview, Maria asked me what advice I would offer women who are not comfortable asking for pay raises. I answered that question completely wrong. Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap. I believe men and women should get equal pay for equal work. And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it’s deserved, Maria’s advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.

The problem with this apology is that it’s too strong. It erased his first comments, which contained something that he actually believed, and other people most likely believe.

So, do I think he messed up? Absolutely. But people got distracted from what was actually being discussed and ended up backing him into a corner. This negative outcome is partly the result also of Ms. Klawe and of everyone who flew off the handle. The discussion is now cauterized rather than being able to move forward. Now we may never know the final part, the most useful part, of this discussion. In this hypothetical exchange, Ms. Klawe asks, “You believe that we must do things to address the pay gap. But you also believe in recognizing that HR is inefficient in the short-term. Practically speaking, how can we all together — and women individually — reconcile these two facts? We won’t get the raises we deserve unless we ask for them, but maybe there is a cost to this?” Mr. Nadella, I suspect, might have had an answer that, if not completely enlightening, would have at least pushed the discussion further. But, whatever his thoughts on that question are, we are not likely to hear them anytime soon.

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