THE BLOG
10/30/2014 01:54 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

The No-Problem Problem

Is Microsoft finally getting serious about making its workforce welcome to women and minorities? The internal memo that CEO Satya Nadella sent to his employees on October 15 is encouraging news. "I envision a company composed of more diverse talent," he said in his note, obtained by GeekWire. "I envision more diverse executive staff and a more diverse Senior Leadership Team." But why does it take a PR meltdown to get hi-tech leaders to make any attempt to move the diversity needle? Or even admit there's a problem?

In case you missed it, Nadella made a colossal gaffe on October 9 by telling the audience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference that women should have "faith that the system will give you the right raise" and rely on "good karma" to be rewarded. (After all, Nadella's good karma earned him an $84.3-million pay package for the year, it was reported last week.)

In the same employee memo, Nadella may have dug himself in a little deeper by saying Microsoft is currently paying women the same salary as men at the same position. Information by Glassdoor--a site where employees anonymously review their companies--does not support this. In 12 out of 14 job titles at Microsoft, employees report that women earn less than men on average. This is based on a small sample size of Microsoft workers, however, and Microsoft doesn't publish salary information. But it's not good news, given the widespread cynicism that already exists about gender equity in the tech field.

"Karma-gate" occurred only a few weeks after Apple was roundly scolded by critics (including me in a previous post) for not having women leaders represented onstage at its highly publicized product rollout in September. Apple--and Silicon Valley in general--has been under heavy fire this year for its scarcity of female faces in high places.

Theories abound why hi-tech firms grow so few women. Some argue that the low percentage of women graduating with computer science and engineering degrees (18%) dooms their chances from the start of getting aboard the technical ladder in significant numbers. Yet women make up almost 40% of MBA grads and don't fare much better on the business side of hi-tech, as reported in a new study by Catalyst: "High Potentials in Tech-Intensive Industries: The Gender Divide in Business Roles."

After surveying nearly 6,000 MBA grads working in business jobs in tech firms in the U.S. and Canada, Catalyst reports that 55 percent of women start off at entry-level, compared with 39 percent of men. Such a differential, played out over many years, will greatly increase the disparity in rank (and pay) between men and women. Also in a survey of 10,000 MBA graduates Catalyst found that 53 percent of the women left hi-tech for other work, compared to 31 percent of the men.

The author of the Catalyst study, Anna Beninger, pointed out in The Washington Post that these women feel like "outsiders" in the business side of tech, often working in teams of less than 10% women. "The tech industry has some significant culture issues," she says. "It's really damaging their ability to attract the best talent." The study also confirms a complaint often voiced by women in business that having no role models was a major obstacle to their advancement. (18 percent of women, as opposed to 7 percent of men, mentioned this.)

Meanwhile a report this year by The Center for Talent Innovation, "Athena Factor 2.0--Accelerating Female Talent in Science, Engineering & Technology," found that US women are 45 percent more likely than men to plan to exit their "geek workplace cultures" within one year. Their survey also validated three major challenges that women face in hi-tech--which been reported in many other surveys: "hostile macho cultures," "isolation," and "scarcity of effective sponsors."

The final indignity: in the CTI study, one third of senior leaders in hi-tech--male and female--reported that a woman would never reach the top position in their company.

The fact that this is tolerated in tech land in 2014 calls to mind the "no-problem problem" that legal scholar Deborah Rhode defined in 1990 regarding women's rights: "the lack of social consensus that there is in fact a problem."

Twenty-four years later, do we still have a no-problem problem?