Response to: Nadella on women asking for raises


This Thursday, Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, was answering questions on stage at the Grace Hopper Conference, a conference for women in computing. His most controversial answer came from the question, asked by Maria Klawe, “What do you advise women who are interested in advancing their careers, but not comfortable … with asking for a raise?

Nadella answered, “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 raises have. Because that’s good karma, that’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.

He has since tweeted:

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

And addressed Microsoft in an email. The full video is attached at the bottom of this post.

My post has two main points: the obvious shortcomings of Nadella’s statement, and the bigger problem that was revealed by them.

Obvious shortcomings

There are five main, non-exhaustiveness points to how this answer could be taken as either insensitive, ignorant, or plain wrong:

  1. Studies have shown, when all else is equal, women tend not to ask for raises/promotions, or lobby for them hard enough.
  2. The pay gap is historic, and it continues to exist. To act as though it has already been resolved is ignorant and insensitive.
  3. In the case he meant to address both genders equally on not asking for a raise, his audience was majority women, and therefore should have taken into account points 1 and 2, and at the very least not suggested to continue the trend.
  4. There is no way to believe that he went through his career by never asking that he would like a raise or promotion formally or informally.
  5. The blatant lack of basic understanding of gender based issues from a high powered tech CEO is an issue for women in tech itself.

Points 1 and 2 were probably what the person who submitted the question was referencing to when they asked the question. Making point 3 even more cringe worthy, that he would suggest inaction when the questioner was looking for a suggested action. 4 is condescending to all women in tech. It’s hard to believe that there is a path to the CEO of one of the big tech companies in which you depend on karma to get you there 100% of the way. Why would he not suggest a similar method as he used to succeed? Is that a path women can not inherently take?

These points are fairly obvious, but I wanted to state them just to get them out on the table.

The Bigger Problem

Nadella knew he was not only attending, but also speaking at a national conference for women in computing. Even if he was ignorant of all problems perceived or real for women in tech, he probably should have read a summary of the issues before going on stage. One of the main issues for women in tech is the worry that we haven’t asked for enough pay, or if we’re being to pushy to ask for more. And that is exactly what he ignorantly suggests, that we should not be pushy, and instead hope that a system that has historically underpaid women would help us get the raise.

I could see a point where he was thinking in his CEO utopia, how would people get raises? And of course, in CEOtopia, ideally no one would get raises, which is fair enough from his perspective. So, it seems as though its a combination of three things where he lacked: empathy, understanding challenges commonly faced by women, or ability to step out of his CEO viewpoint. These tend to promote an answer to a question that would most benefit the speaker and not the audience. This was obvious in his case. But, how is he any different than any high powered person asked to talk to a group of people the speaker barely identifies with? He isn’t. He just did a great job of making it obvious he is out of touch.

His answer was only serving to him and his company, not for the greater good of women in tech. And, he probably isn't the only one that has given sub-optimal answers at Grace Hopper or any other conference that promotes a minority in a field. People are going to say their answers from their perspective because those views are what made them successful. It only becomes an issue when the perspective doesn't align, or is in direct disagreement with the audience’s interests. It becomes a greater issue when the speaker is seen as giving advice.

The fact that there is a high amount of emphasis given to underrepresented minorities in a lot of fields to promote participation in said field combined with the fact that the promoted participants are minorities means that the promoted would, more likely than not, receive advice from someone in the majority. The majority person, not always but frequently, would have never been in similar situations to the audience, and therefore, would not be able to properly empathize with the audience’s view. Additionally, combine the inexperience with inability to understand that there is an experience gap, would result in the majority speaker’s interests or views to not be aligned with the audience and announcing advice, which probably wouldn’t help the audience.

In my experience as a women in tech, I have always listened to a speaker man or women about their advice to women in tech as though they were qualified. And, I tried to take into account their advice because they were supposed to answer in a way that would benefit us, women in tech. Now, my understanding is allies like Satya mean well, but sometimes fall short because of their inherent perspectives. So, personally, this is a wakeup call to heavily scrutinize what advice a speaker gives.

Furthermore, I wonder if the minority in X conferences help or hurt the population in attendance because it mass aligns the advice to follow. The advice could be incredibly good, but it also, in Satya’s case, could be hurtful. Either way, it is advice that worked for one person to get to where they were. Inherently, it can’t be good for a wide audience, where each person has their own unique goals and skills. On top of this, it makes me wonder if women or other minorities in tech are less likely to take risks because of mass alignment of thought from conferences like these.

tl;dr

When someone is giving advice, assess where their interests and perspectives lie, and how they align with yours.

Disclaimer

There are many issues facing women in tech today. This post was written to highlight one that was made clear through Satya Nadella’s keynote. Grace Hopper, and the like, are good places to network. Furthermore, I see Nadella or similar people who make ignorant statements like these as meaning not to be hurtful, they just highlight the persistent issues facing women in tech.

Source

Video of whole Keynote. Question starts around 1:34.