10/14/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Satya Nadella Should Have Said About Women Asking For Raises

Last week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella came under fire for his poor response to a question regarding how women should ask for raises. The question, posed at the prestigious Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, asked Nadella what advice he would give women who don't feel comfortable pressing their bosses for promotions or raises. Nadella responded "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's good karma. It will come back," Nadella said. "That's the kind of person that I want to trust, that I want to give more responsibility to."


His gaffe has become widely publicized, becoming the target of Twitter criticism.

Nadella joins several prominent public figures who have shown deep-rooted male bias against women." As a Microsoft employee, I do not believe that Nadella's statement was ill-intentioned, or that he has any such deep-rooted bias. I think he was unforgivably unprepared for the question, and put together a rapid but insincere apology to employees that may have simply exacerbated the problem. However, his unready response to what was a highly anticipated question is indicative of a larger lack of awareness about the problems women in technology, and, more broadly, the working world, face.

The question about raises was posed because a plethora of research has revealed that women are less likely to negotiate than their male counterparts. One study found a 7.6 percent difference in salaries between male and female MBAs, because only 7 percent of women attempted to negotiate, while 57 percent of men did. Women in tech made $6,358 less than men in 2012. Even one of the most highly compensated women in the world, GM CEO Mary Barra revealed at the Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit that she has never once asked for a raise. Nadella's comments may have been directed at the subject of raises in general, implying that "karma" or "the system" reward good work without recognizing the massive gaps that exist between men and women in the workplace. Much has been said about the pay gap, the 23 percent difference in compensation between sexes, but the most pervasive discrepancy between working men and women today is the confidence gap.

A seminal article from The Atlantic illuminates the body of research that shows how confidence, as much as competence, determines outcomes such as the likeliness of women succeeding academically, getting a promotion, and applying for new opportunities. While actual performance between men and women does not differ in quantity, men consistently overestimate their abilities, and women routinely underestimate theirs. While Nadella later acknowledged that he believes "men and women should get equal pay for equal work", he failed to recognize that the very definitions of equal work vary so much.

Beyond the initial assertiveness a woman needs to muster to ask for a raise in the first place, when she actually does ask, the odds are stacked against her. A Harvard Kennedy School study found that when men and women use the exact same scripts to ask for raises, while both men and women receive raises, men are liked, whereas women are found "aggressive" and come out with worse reputations. Specifically, males are less likely to want to work with the female negotiators. In fact, to appear at all likable, women have to use tactics that are downright patronizing: negotiating for the sake of a team rather than themselves, subverting personal expectations for a communal orientation, and employing "feminine charm," a euphemism for flirtation.

Nadella missed an immense opportunity to use this platform to become an advocate for women in technology. He should have addressed the confidence gap and reasons that women find it more difficult to ask for raises. He should have spoken about the various subconscious biases that work against women when it comes to negotiation, and how they can be mitigated. He could have suggested tactics, referenced books or studies, and discussed examples of successful female negotiators. But most of all, he should have marked his commitment, on behalf of his company, his industry, and the corporate environment, to helping women achieve personal and professional equality and creating a more diverse, level, and inclusive working world.