Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s misguided advice to women might be “wrong,” but his comments were right on about the challenges women face in the workplace.
Reactions to Nadella’s suggestion that women should trust the “system” and allow karma to usher in a better raise quickly dismissed him as completely off-base. Nadella himself apologized and called the comments “wrong” within hours. Some people question how a powerful CEO with an army of handlers could have made that type of mistake in public as if he’d never considered the question before.
Perhaps he hadn’t. Nadella’s comments are another example of the deeply in-grained anti-women bias in the tech and the corporate worlds overall. The New York Times points out numerous studies showing that women need to be more aggressive in asking for raises and promotions. Waiting for the “system” to reward women hasn’t worked for decades, but at least Nadella acknowledged that there is a “system” – one in desperate need of change.
At Microsoft, the “system” is more than two-thirds male, but the ratio is similar at other large tech companies and in other industries such as real estate and finance. The “system” doesn’t just exist in the workplace, but also in how we think.
Let’s play word association: What gender do you picture when you hear words like CEO, stockbroker, tech worker or breadwinner?
I pictured men. I, and I’m sure many people, frequently fall into the trap of unconscious bias: we are used to seeing men in power and women as the assistants. Even though we say things like, “We need to pay women better,” or “We need more women CEOs,” we revert to familiar stereotypes even if they are erroneous.
Another unconscious bias is the idea that men are supposed to be aggressive competitors like football players on the field and women are supposed to be leaders and nurturers like school teachers. Men see their colleagues as competitors for the next raise or promotion while women tend to view colleagues as fellow members of a team.
I’m glad that Nadella apologized and hopefully he will be more conscious of how his company treats women and compensates them for their hard work going forward. His blunder serves as another reminder to women that the “system” isn’t set up in our favor, and that the battle to make progress continues.
Books like Claire Shipman and Katty Kay’s The Confidence Code and Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s Ask for It, demonstrate that getting better pay isn’t just a matter of asking, but requires women to believe that they deserve that raise or promotion, and can prove they’ve earned it. The more women push, the less uncomfortable and taboo it will become.
That’s a driving factor in the #DisrupttheDefault campaign launched by Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on expanding opportunities for women and business. Check out five ways to start disrupting.
Nadella quickly admitted his mistake and went into full damage control, but let’s dwell on his comments a little longer. They expose how much room our society has for improvement and the crucial task of disrupting the status quo. We can all play a role in that.