What Does Microsoft’s CEO Really Think About Equal Pay?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Microsoft CEO  Satya Nadella set the Internet abuzz when he suggested at a women’s tech conference that women need not ask for raises, but that they should trust that the system will fairly reward hard work.

“It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise,” Nadella said at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. “That might be one of the initial ‘super powers,’ that quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have.” He added, “It’s good karma. It will come back.”

Though his comments did not immediately draw an audible reaction from those in attendance of this event, Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a Microsoft director, who was serving as the interviewer at the event, told him she disagreed, drawing cheers from the crowd. She suggested women research salary information before asking for a pay increase, but should indeed go after raises.

After seeing the reaction outside of the event to his words, Nadella tweeted that his response had been “inarticulate,” then followed it up with an apology email posted on Microsoft’s website. “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,” he wrote.

“Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap,” Nadella wrote to Microsoft. “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.”

To Nadella’s initial point — that hard work is fairly rewarded with raises — The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Lots of powerful people have never asked for raises, partly because their careers have advanced rapidly enough that doing so simply was not necessary. Speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference earlier this week, General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra admitted that she had never done so — nor had a significant proportion of attendees, high-powered women who had paid thousands of dollars to attend.” However, that’s hardly a scientific study, and leaves out all the women who are not promoted to visible positions of power. Also according to The Wall Street Journal, Klawe herself said “she has asked for and received raises several times.” Working at IBM in the 1980s, she learned that her own salary was lower than her subordinates’ median pay and asked for a pay increase. She received a 15% raise and got another substantial raise the following year.

Regardless of the apology, his initial answer reflects the largest concern for women in the technology industry. Being in an industry overwhelmingly controlled by men, mainly white and Asian, who either don’t acknowledge the negative implications of gender inequality or are not educated on how to fix it makes it difficult for women to find the field appealing — creating a circular problem. At Microsoft itself, only 29% of employees are female, and its technical and engineering and management staffs are only 17% female.

Those numbers only reinforce the fact that Nadella’s uninformed answer remains disconcerting for women. “It is shameful that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella would tell women—especially in an industry that already has a serious problem recruiting and retaining female talent—not to ask for raises,” Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of online workplace group UltraViolet, said in a statement released Friday.

But Klawe does think that Nadella’s comments were at least somewhat misconstrued. “When he answered that question … his remarks weren’t aimed at women, they were aimed at all people,” she said to The Wall Street Journal. “I disagree [with him] because it’s not a fair world. I know from my own experience, and from watching other women, that unless you ask, you’re not going to get the same responsibilities or the same pay [as men].”

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