THE BLOG
10/17/2014 06:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Satya Nadella's Accidental (and Valuable) Gift

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If you are even peripherally engaged with technology or women in technology, it would have been hard to miss the hubbub surrounding Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. But in case you missed it, during his Q&A keynote at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing earlier this month, he was asked advice for women who felt uncomfortable asking for pay raises.

He replied:

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. And that, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don't ask for raises 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.

Oh boy. My immediate reaction as a passionate equal rights advocate for women and minorities left me itching to write and lend my voice to a matter that is very near and dear to my heart.

But in situations like this, it's important that our voices not lose perspective - as the progress and change we desire only comes when we leave our emotional silos, seeking to understand and then hopefully educate people from diverse (different from our) viewpoints.

The Conversation

Joining such a big conversation, I wanted to be thoughtful and respectful with my words. Not just because Microsoft has been very generous supporter of my organization (Social Media for Nonprofits), but because a vast majority of the community we serve in our global series - educating nonprofit professionals in leveraging social media technology - is women.

And thoughtful consideration brought me to this realization: Satya Nadella gave us a gift.

As Monica Guzman mentioned in her Seattle Times piece,

"Nadella's awful advice is already doing more to boost the modern conversation about diversity in the workplace than any other incident in at least the past couple of years."

A moment of offhand honesty did something a hundred carefully crafted and choreographed speeches couldn't have done.

It's worth noting (and admiring) that Mr. Nadella did not defend his remarks when, in addition to a discussion at an employee town hall meeting, he apologized in an email to Microsoft employees, which was published in the Seattle Times:

"One of the answers I gave at the conference was generic advice that was just plain wrong. I apologize."

Why All of This Matters

I came to this country as a 19-year-old female from a very patriarchal society and put myself through school, while helping my family to some extent. Yet although I live in the most progressive city, state and country, I've faced and continue to face an incredible amount of gender, race and age-based discrimination. And for what? Simply striving to attain my fair share of pay and recognition. Sometimes it is very overt but more times than not, it is very subtle and often, the person doesn't even realize that they are being very discriminatory.

Many women have similar stories. But future generations don't have to.

If we can recognize that there is bias -- some of it very subtle and deeply ingrained - then we can work toward changing that bias.

Until we do, campaigns and conversations like #WhyIstayed, #YesAllWomen, #Ferguson, and others will continue to be necessary to show the world how widespread these issues are.

What's In a Word?

Speaking of widespread misconceptions... Part of what has tripped people up with regard to Mr. Nadella's comment is an incorrect understanding of the definition of the word Karma. In Indian culture the word has its origin in the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 2, verse 47, which translates literally to:

Thy right is to work only, but never with its fruits; let not the fruits of actions be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction.

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In other words, "Do your job without worrying about the outcome or result." This is something I heard a million times growing up. This is to say, if you work hard, have good work ethic, are honest and conscientious, you will get your due recognition. Sadly, this is clearly not the case, there is both rampant and subtle discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation, age and more in both countries.

In the U.S., however, the term Karma is used to indicate a consequence of your actions: "Karma is a b*tch" or "what comes around goes around". But this is incorrect, as Karma simply means "actions and deeds."

I don't know much about Mr. Nadella's upbringing, but if it was similar to my own, Mr. Nadella was not making a statement about whether women deserve (or do not deserve) raises based on their work performance. And I think it's important to understand that.

It's Time to Change

But it's not sound advice for women or men, which, to his credit, Mr. Nadella now realizes. So -what, as a prominent figure in the technology space, will he do now?
His apology email outlines the "more diverse" company he envisions, earmarking three key areas of immediate focus:

• Equal pay for equal work, as well as equal opportunity for equal work
• Recruiting more diverse talent to Microsoft at all levels of the company
• Expanded training for all employees on how to foster an inclusive culture

These are wonderful intentions, which I hope mark a turning point for Mr. Nadella to lead the charge on addressing gender inequality in the workplace.

Beyond that, there is now a window of opportunity for:

Women in Technology -- with gender inequality in tech top-of-mind, the major tech giants (not just Microsoft) will provide training to senior execs in addressing this matter in a material way

Women at Microsoft -- it's a good bet women will feel empowered to ask for raises, and more likely get them now as senior execs will be more sensitive to equality concerns

Nonprofits and Women in the Tech Space -- Microsoft and other tech giants doing damage control PR will likely fund several initiatives to assure their employees, stake holders, the media and public that they welcome and support women in tech

And if that isn't a gift, nothing is.

Mr. Nadella, through this misstep you just may have stumbled upon a higher calling -- to dig out of this mess with purposeful strides toward a better future for all of us. Consider me part of your team!

I'll share some thoughts from my experience about what women can do to advocate for themselves at workplaces in my next post. I look forward to working with all of you to help create a world where everyone excels on the basis of their merit and hard work, not their age, race or gender or other discriminatory basis.

Lead photo by The Anita Borg Institute, Steve Maller Photography
Bhagwad Gita quote photo by Anand, Bhagwad Gita Blog