News & Analysis

Microsoft CEO tells women not to ask for a pay rise at a tech event then apologises. Is this a trend?

- October 16, 2014 4 MIN READ

Oh, here we go again.

There appears to be a growing global trend. A speaker at a tech event says something about women that sounds a tad sexist and outrages the audience – or something that the media blows out of proportion. Judge however you will. (Examples: Here, Here).

Apparently, the latest high-profile figure to commit such a social faux pas is Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. At the Hopper Conference last week, he suggested to an audience of (mostly) women that instead of asking for a pay rise, they should rely on Karma.

“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 according to ReadWrite.

Nadella made such comments in an on-stage conversation with computer scientist Maria Klawe, who is the President of Harvey Mudd College, and member of Microsoft’s board of directors. According to reports, she kept a straight face as Nadella likened “faith in the system” to magic.

“That might be one of the initial ‘super powers,’ that quite frankly, women (who) don’t ask for a raise have. It’s good karma. It will come back,” he said according to ReadWrite.

This is slightly problematic, given the overall global gender pay disparity in various industries. Karma hasn’t worked too favourably for us, has it?

Shortly after ReadWrite reported on the incident, Nadella posted a tweet saying his remarks were “inarticulate”.

His tweet, however, isn’t much clearer:

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Huh? Is he saying that the tech industry needs to close the gender pay gap so that women don’t feel the need to ask for a pay rise? 

Apparently, Nadella followed up with a statement to employees that evening in which he described his earlier remarks as “completely wrong”, according to ReadWrite. Interestingly, one former Microsoft employee posted a tweet saying that Nadella’s advice is “the standard answer” at Microsoft to anyone, male or female, who asks for a pay rise.

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I read an article in April this year on FastCompany entitled Learning to ask for the pay you deserve, by Levo League Founder Caroline Ghosn. The article states that women work for free for 59 days a year. Though it is unclear, I believe this number has been calculated by adding up the extra hours worked without financial compensation.

There is a sentiment communicated in the article that’s awfully reminiscent of my own experiences as a female in the workforce, as well as friends and acquaintances of mine. Many women feel awkward about asking for a pay rise. They feel they deserve it, but are unsure as to whether they are entitled to it.

In the aforementioned article, a woman in Nashville, Maureen, is quoted saying that she had been working at a company for two years and that although her responsibilities had increased, her salary hadn’t. This is unsurprising given she was working at a startup. But she found a way to demonstrate her value using numbers, and she got the pay rise she wanted. The point is: she had to ask.

“I had been at my company two years without a raise. I had worked my way up and taken on quite a bit of responsibility. We are a startup, so budgets are always tight and we don’t have typical annual corporate reviews. Asking for a raise is pretty taboo because we are all working with slim budgets. Another company approached me trying to recruit me away from my current company.

“I took the meeting as a chance to find out more about what they were offering and use that as leverage as well. I told the other company I wanted a 10% to 15% raise; they said sure. So with that knowledge, I put together a rundown of everything I was currently working on for my boss and what I had accomplished over the past two years.

“I planned a meeting with him at the end of the day and brought in everything and presented it. And then I said I would like a raise, plus a few more items I wanted. I used figures and statistics showing how much it would cost him to hire outside publicists for each project versus giving me a raise. I also let him know that other companies had been pursuing me and that I wasn’t keen on leaving, but I also wasn’t fond of not getting paid what I deserve.

“He took that information, told me he would talk to the CEO, and let me know a couple of (anxious) days later. I got a 12% raise and some of my other items of my “wish list.” My year in this position is coming up in May so I guess it is time to “ask for more” again.”

Last year, I was investigating the subject of gender pay disparity in tech companies; and although the article never came to fruition, four interviewees (all of whom were either newfound mothers or had primary school aged children) said that their male counterparts were getting small pay rises and they weren’t. They were unsure as to why they were left out, but were too scared to ask due to potential repercussions.

One speculated that they were ‘paid’ with ‘flexibility’. Their employers were understanding of their obligations to look after their children – like drop them off at school, etc. This meant that they would arrive at the office later than their coworkers, but would make up for the hours by leaving later or doing extra sales. Somehow, this still sounds unfair.

So Nadella’s suggestion that women should sit there quietly and wait to be rewarded doesn’t seem plausible. The implication here is that women will be rewarded if they keep their mouths shut.

But that really depends on how observant and kind the employer is. While we should remain humble, we shouldn’t be have to be silent. That makes us more vulnerable to exploitation.