Microsoft's CEO and the Worst Career Advice Imaginable

Trust the system, said person for whom the system worked.

Satya Nadella speaking at a Microsoft event in April (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Discuss gender in the workplace and there it is, stubborn, infuriating, impossible to avoid: the pay gap. For every dollar a man earns, professional women earn only 78 cents.

The pay gap holds across and within professions, including some of the highest-paying. It is real, and it is persistent.

So at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing—a conference on women in tech in Phoenix, Arizona—it was likely to be a common topic of conversation. And when Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, interviewed Satya Nadella, the recently installed CEO of Microsoft, it was bound to come up.

And, indeed, it did. Klawe, academic, asked Nadella, CEO: How should women handle the pay gap? How should they secure fair and equal pay?

Now, before continuing, let us review some statistics.

We know first of all that there is that stubborn, shocking pay gap. It persists across jobs and careers.

And we know, what’s more, that however bad things are in the workforce generally, they are particularly bad in tech, where women hold just 25 percent of the jobs. (They make up 57 percent of the entire workforce.)

Ann Friedman recently (and excellently) compiled all the dismal numbers about the state of women in tech. Hunt for the root cause, she writes, and you have to “look at who’s holding the purse strings”:

Only 4 percent of senior venture capitalists are women, and 19 percent of U.S. angel investors are women. Is it any wonder that men are 40 percent more likely to be funded by venture capitalists, and only 4 to 7 percent of startup founders are women? (Well, that number is disputed, but almost everyone agrees it’s single-digit.) Software developers, the darlings of the tech gold rush, are only 20 percent women. A third of female tech entrepreneurs reported facing “dismissive attitudes” from their co-workers. […] Even when women break into tech, they don’t stay. More than half — 56 percent — end up leaving the industry.

That’s right. Even once they get to tech, most women don’t linger:

So. This is the state of things. Sound and well-sourced data suggest that women face additional hurdles in tech at every juncture: in college, as an entry-level employee, as a manager, as a VC—and as a CEO (only three tech CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female).

One might even say that something, something big, something systemic is biased against women.

How should women handle that systemic bias, Satya Nadella?

“It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise,” he told the attendees, according to Selena Larson of ReadWriteWeb.

“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.”

Larson continues, with delicious detail:

Audience murmurs suggested confusion and displeasure with career advice that both goes against everything women are told in the Lean In era, and seems woefully out of touch.

So out of touch, in fact, that Nadella quickly walked the comments back. In an email to all Microsoft employees last night, he wrote:

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. 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.

And that’s good advice for everyone—not just women. Still, though, the story remains remarkable. You can omit the specific gender element of this, view it as abstractly as possible, and you get this story: A powerful CEO was asked how individuals should act in a system stacked against them, and his literal answer was, have faith in the system.

If you think he’s the only person who sometimes thinks that way, well, I have a raise to give you. But only if you don’t ask for it first.