Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella apologized Thursday for comments he’d made at a women’s computer science conference earlier that day. Basically, Nadella told a group of women computer scientists that it was best not to ask for a raise, but rather to trust that “good karma” would provide.
“At the conference, called the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, he said: ‘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. ‘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.’”
Naturally, Twitter went bananas over his remarks. Later in the day, Nadella tweeted that he’d been “inarticulate,” and he wrote a memo of apology to Microsoft employees, saying, “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.”
Well, that’s certainly good to know, Satya.
Hey, I can empathize with the guy. I’ve made plenty of verbal missteps in my day, and I think it’s admirable that he immediately saw the error of his ways and tried to make amends.
But (you knew there would be a “but,” right?) the fact remains that Nadella oversees a corporation in which only 17 percent of global tech employees are women. Women comprise about 17 percent of Microsoft leadership. In contrast, longtime competitor Apple does a bit better, with females representing 20 percent of global tech employees and 28 percent of global leadership. Apple’s numbers still ain’t great, but they’re not quite as groan-inducing.
It is perhaps fair, therefore, to say that Microsoft has a female problem.
It’s not that Nadella said something wildly offensive like, “Ladies are so dumb! Dumb dumb pretty dummies!” I don’t think the guy is a raging sexist or anything cartoonish like that. But it took me a long time to realize that prejudice isn’t always explicit and overt.
For example, I used to think racism was what happened when an old, angry white dude put on a KKK hood and went down to burn a cross with his BFFs. I figured sexism was some creepy, sweaty man telling a woman she’s gotta sleep with him in order to get a job. Until I met more people out in the real world and had some, um, interesting experiences of my own, I didn’t realize how subtle this stuff can get.
An example of commonplace sexism might be as simple as a male math teacher always calling on boys instead of girls in the classroom. It’s not even conscious. It’s almost innocuous. The math teacher isn’t trying to oppress anybody. But imagine experiencing incidents like these over and over and over again, and you can probably begin to see why some folks get really pissed.
Anyway, the more I thought about them, the more Nadella’s original comments irked me. His words seem to represent a less explicit version of the usual message we send little girls: “Be a good girl, and you will be rewarded. Stay quiet. Keep your head down. Work hard. Be polite. Be sweet. Don’t bother anybody with your needs or desires. Do what your boss (probably a man) says.” And the additional of the term “good karma” seems to indicate a kind of magical thinking. “If you are nice, the Good Fairies of the Universe will smile down upon you and grant you your greatest wish: a corner office and great stock options!” The implication is that if you do the opposite –make waves, ask for what you want – you will be punished by a lack of success. It reminds me of The Secret, perhaps the stupidest popular philosophy espoused in recent years.
As a society, we praise men who are “straightforward” and “direct” but criticize women who are “blunt” and “abrasive.” We encourage little boys to explore the world and challenge themselves; we ask little girls to sit quietly and play nicely. “Be a lady,” we say, which means be quiet and small and complaint and pliable.
There’s a reason many women cherish the saying, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” (It’s been attributed to just about every famous lady in Western history, but it’s actually from historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.) It’s because we know all too well what being nice and quiet gets you: a whole lot of nothing.
The successful men and women I know rarely fail to ask for what they want. They know what they want, and they figure out how to ask for it in just the right way. Sometimes, when an offer isn’t forthcoming, they go ahead and take what’s rightfully theirs. And they always, always, always work their asses off.
What leaders like Nadella need to remember is that their words carry a great deal of weight to those of us who seek to succeed and be leaders in our fields. And encouraging anyone to be a nice little “yes” man or woman is just bad business. I’ve never met a powerful person who gained that power by waiting for it to come to him or her.
So gals (and gents!), ask for that raise. Prove you’re worth it. Don’t wait for fate to turn in your favor. I’m pretty sure Satya Nadella didn’t, and he’s going to make $18 million next year.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.