10/14/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Karma, It's a B*stard, Nadella

Up in the sky, look: It's a bird. It's a plane. It's SuperCEO! Faster than a speeding retweet, more powerful than his female colleagues, able to leap monumental fuck ups in a single bound. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has a superhuman task ahead if he's going to out-fly the PR disaster he created at last Thursday's Grace Hopper Conference where he explained to 500 women how not asking for a pay rise is their special "super power."

During an interview with Maria Klawe at the women-in-technology conference, Nadella forgot who he was talking to and let his audience in on how his world really works. Ladies, mustn't annoy the men by speaking up. We are good at that, aren't we? Keeping quiet, not making a fuss, waiting for the universe to bestow balance. Nadella must have been pretty surprised when thousands of women did exactly the opposite, throwing his own words back at him like Twitter Kryptonite.

"It's not really about asking for the raise," he said, with rapidly disintegrating coherence, "but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. That might be one of the initial 'super powers' 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." Who knew Microsoft has Tom Cruise write their CEO's cue cards?


The cosmically self-correcting system he thinks we should trust has women earning 78 percent of the salary of men and Microsoft, along with companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo, operating with a ratio of 70:30 male to female employees. Women would need superhuman powers of faith to kid themselves that sitting back and waiting is going to fix that. They'd also need extremely thick skins not to heed the message he's sending.

"I found Satya Nadella's comments extremely perturbing," says Cindy Gallop, Founder of Make Love Not Porn and vocal campaigner for changing the dominant ratio in the tech industry. "He reinforced the age-old belief that women should be seen and not heard; that nice girls don't put themselves forward, and that to do so is aggressive, abrasive, and will be met with negative results and damage to their careers, thereby reinforcing the insecurity, lack of confidence and concern that most women feel about doing this."

Catherine Whitaker, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins UK and now COO for tech start up Knowledge Transmission, agrees. "Most companies operate on the 'don't ask, don't get' principle and in my experience of managing mostly women, we don't ask so we don't get."

It's unlikely that Nadella achieved his own promotion to CEO or his estimated pay packet of $7,668,952 by following his own advice and writing a cosmic shopping list. More probable is that he asked, he got, as far more men than women are comfortable doing. They can trust the system because they built it. It bends to their rules, endorsed from the top, although usually unspoken -- until one of them is caught out onstage.

Nadella awoke the next with a whole load of bad karma to reverse. He put out a too-little-too-late letter to Microsoft employees stating his revised view that, "I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap. I believe men and women should get equal pay for equal work. And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it's deserved, Maria's advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask."

His backpedalling email is as effective as his feeble attempt at clarification on Twitter at convincing anyone that he thinks women should ask for a raise.

The parroted advice to "just ask" goes back full circle to the question Maria Klawe had originally asked him at the conference -- what should women do who are uncomfortable about making a request for a raise? He hasn't even begun to give an actual solution from within Microsoft where the 83 percent male management has most of the power to change their corporate culture.

Cindy Gallop isn't very interested in any more words from Nadella. "What he can do -- and now has to do, with immediate effect -- is to instigate a system within Microsoft where women are actively encouraged to review their pay, to speak up and ask for pay rises. He has to demonstrate internally he is on the case encouraging that and asking how it's being received or why it's not happening universally, for a very long time to come."

If Nadella wants to really put his powers to use and spin the Earth off its current, male-leaning axis, he can start by answering some questions. "Instead of telling women to trust a system in which there is still pay inequality," advises Catherine Whitaker. "We should be educating them about how top management makes decisions about remuneration. What kind of achievements or extra responsibilities are likely to lead to a pay increase (if you ask)? When in the year is the best time to highlight these achievements? How should you handle this kind of conversation?"

For women who have been further put off "just asking" for promotions or raises, this breakdown of what to ask, when and how is a good starting point. Monday morning at Microsoft must have been busy for Satya Nadella. I hope he spent the weekend revising his salary budgets.

Karma. It really does come back on you.