Did Satya Nadella misspeak, or tell all?

Satya Nadella found himself in the spotlight again last week, but this time it wasn’t because of his layoffs or product announcements. Instead, he had walked into a minefield that is larger than Microsoft, one regarding the inequity of women’s pay.

He was speaking at a conference about women in computing, which should have led him to carefully charting out what he might say regarding the critical issues, like workforce diversity (or lack of it), and related issues, like pay. He apparently did not. Or at the very least, he did not prepare himself with the answers that would have satisfied the audience at that conference.

And of course, this event and Nadella’s comments took place during a time in which the discourse about diversity in the tech workforce has risen to a fever pitch. Major tech companies have released figures that reveal a world that is about 70% male, and largely white and asian. And women working in these companies make less than men, perhaps 10% less (according to a study by Dice).

When asked by Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College and a member of Microsoft’s board of director, about advice he might give to women seeking a raise, 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. That, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have. 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. That’s the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to. And in the long-term efficiency, things catch up.

As Kara Swisher responded,

Oh dear. Oh my. No, no, no.

Apparently the crowd was quite agitated by this. And it rapidly spread across the Twittersphere, creating a PR mess for the company.

He backtracked on Twitter later in the day, saying

His statement a/ doesn’t apologize for saying that women shouldn’t ask for raises, and b/ fails to acknowledge that the most direct route to leveling the pay of women would be for women to ask for raises and their companies to grant them.

The reality is that women are less likely to negotiate their pay at the time of being offered a job, as has been studied by Claudia Goldin, a labor economist at Harvard. It turns out the pay gap in tech is smaller than other fields, where women make 84% to 99% of what men do, depending on role. That is due to tech’s higher degree of flexibility regarding where work is done, which is the most critical factor in pay gap.

Still, with a continuing pay gap and only 30% women, tech still has a long way to go. And the leaders of the companies need to do more, and not ask women to wait for parity.