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Nadella May Have Done Women a Favor by Insulting Them

Satya Nadella's comments suggesting that women shouldn't ask for pay raises or promotions have prompted outrage on social media. But to his credit, he swiftly apologized, saying he didn't mean what he said.

To be sure, Nadella's answer to the question of "What is your advice?" to women uncomfortable asking for a raise was, indeed, insulting to women. Nadella said "karma" is the best way women should expect a salary increase or career advancement, a comment the male CEO couldn't have made at a worse place: The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Phoenix, where he was interviewed onstage by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. Even more unfortunate, Klawe is a Microsoft board member, one of the people Nadella reports to.

Here's exactly what Nadella said:

"It's not really just asking for the raise but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raises as you go along. And I think it might be one of the additional super powers that, quite frankly, women who don't ask for a raise have. Because that's good karma, it will come back, because somebody's going to know that '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."

Accentuating his poor choice of words was Klawe's immediate and firm challenge when she responded, "This is one of the very few things I disagree with you on," which was followed by a rousing applause. But it also gave Klawe an opportunity to tell women how not to make the same mistake she has in the past.

Klawe explained that she was among those who could easily advocate for someone who works for her but not for herself. Klawe related how she got stiffed on getting fair pay when she took a job as dean of Princeton University's engineering school because she didn't advocate for herself. Instead of finding out how much she was worth, when the university asked Klawe how much she wanted to be paid, she told her boss, who was a woman, "Just pay me what you think is right." Princeton paid her $50,000 less than the going scale for that position, Klawe said.

Now she's learned her lesson and offered the following advice: "Do your homework. Make sure you know what a reasonable salary is if you're being offered a job. Do not be as stupid as I was. Second, roleplay. Sit down with somebody you really trust and practice asking for the salary you deserve."

Certainly, the lack of equal pay and advancement for women has been a problem as long as I can remember. On occasion, high-profile lawsuits, often in the financial services industry, will bring it to the forefront and politicians will address it in their campaign speeches. The IT industry, perhaps even more so than the financial services industry, is dominated by men.

Nadella's apology appeared heartfelt. "I answered that question completely wrong," he said in an e-mail to employees almost immediately after making the remarks. "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. I said I was looking forward to the Grace Hopper Conference to learn, and I certainly learned a valuable lesson. I look forward to speaking with you at our monthly Q&A next week and am happy to answer any question you have."

Critics may believe Nadella's apology was nothing more than damage control. It's indeed the first major gaffe committed by the new CEO, but I'd take him at his word. Nadella, who has two daughters of his own, has encouraged employees to ask if they feel they deserve a raise. If Nadella's ill-chosen comments do nothing else, they'll elevate the discussion within Microsoft and throughout the IT industry and business world at large.

Of course, actions speak louder than words, and that's where the challenge remains.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 10/10/2014 at 3:00 PM


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