Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella found himself in the hot seat in October after telling women attending the Grace-Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing that the best way to effectively negotiate for a raise is not to ask for one at all.
Asked by Harvey Mudd College President and Microsoft Board Member Maria Klawe for advice on negotiating for a higher salary, Nadella 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.”
He suggested that women could expect to be financially rewarded thanks to “good karma.”
Reaction to the remarks were swift and heated, with Klawe being the first to disagree that negotiating for a raise is unnecessary in professional fields. She told Nadella and the audience that she personally regretted accepting the position of Dean of Engineering at Princeton University before knowing what she would be paid. Echoing a trend identified by research on women negotiators, Klawe said that she had always felt more comfortable negotiating on behalf of her subordinates than for herself. She encourage audience members to research salary benchmarks and role-play pay negotiations with someone they trust.
Nadella made his comments amid widespread criticism of the high-tech industry for its continued underrepresentation of women. Microsoft, Google, Apple, and other companies all have recently released data showing that the field remains dominated by men, particularly at the highest levels.
Many observers noted that Nadella’s remarks appeared to reflect an ignorance of the hurdles women workers face in achieving equal pay. Women earn less in part because, overall, they have been much less likely than men to negotiate for higher salaries, promotions, and other job opportunities, write Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever in their book Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want (Bantam 2008).
This tendency to wait to be offered raises and perks appears to be rooted at least in part in women’s suspicion that others will view them as aggressive and unlikeable if they negotiate on their own behalf. This suspicion has been confirmed in experimental research by Professor Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard Business School, Professor Linda Babcock, and Professor Lei Lai of Tufts University.
Rather than perpetuating bias by waiting to be offered raises that may never come, women should look for ways to increase the odds that their requests will be granted, Bowles and her colleagues suggest. To avoid the social backlash of asking for more, for example, women should try framing their requests in a way that shows concern for the organization’s needs.
His gaffe aside, Nadella said he was committed to finding ways to hire more women into technical roles at Microsoft, saying he didn’t want to fall back on blaming a lack of women with computer science degrees for the problem. He said that he himself had benefitted early in his career when a female manager tested him with challenging opportunities and encouraged him to be a more patient person. And he said he was certain that one day Microsoft would have a woman CEO.
After the event, with his remarks under fire, Nadella quickly recanted them, saying that he had been “completely wrong.” In fact, he said, his industry bore responsibility for trying to close the persistent gender pay gay and eliminating gender bias. It appeared to be an important light-bulb moment from someone with the power to promote significant change.
His recant was incomplete because he failed to acknowledge the unconscious bias women face when asking for more.