Many of us by now have heard of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s inflammatory comments to Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College and Microsoft board member at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. And we’ve all heard how he has now backed off publicly, admitting first that he was “inarticulate” and now, how he was just wrong.
Here’s how the interchange with Ms. Klawe went:
Maria Klawe: What do you advise women who are interested in advancing their careers but they’re not comfortable with putting themselves up for promotions or advanced opportunities?
Satya Nadella: The thing that perhaps most influenced me in terms of how you look at the journey or a career…There was this guy whose name is Mike Naples who was President of Microsoft when I joined, and he has this saying that all HR systems are long-term efficient, short-term inefficient. And I thought that phrase just captured it. Which is…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 long. And 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 will come back. Somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person I want to trust. That’s the kind of person that I want to give more responsibility to. And in the long-term efficiency, things catch up. And I wonder whether taking the long-term approach helps solve for “Am I getting paid right?” Am I getting rewarded right?” The reality is the best work is not followed with your best rewards. Your best work then has impact, people recognize it, and then you get the rewards. And you somehow have to think that through.”
When I heard all the hoopla, and read the few lines of quotes that have blown up in the media, I was appalled and fiercely angered. Here’s a CEO of Microsoft telling an amazing group of talented, ambitious women in technology to be quiet, and not ask for what they deserve, and trust in the system.
Immediately, I had a million judgments and projections about what Nadella meant and the potential cultural and societal reasons behind his remarks, and I was sure he failed to understand the challenges that women face every day to be recognized and treated equitably and fairly. As a former corporate executive who has faced gender discrimination, I’ve lived this and it’s excruciating (and infuriating).
I believed too that he had just caused more damage than he ever imagined by telling these brilliant, aspiring women leaders in computing and tech (and the world) to “be the kind of person” that won’t ask for a raise if you truly want to advance.
In short, I was sure I would be opposed to everything about him and all of his advice.
But then, I decided to watch his entire talk, and try to understand where he was coming from. From his time on stage talking to Ms. Klawe, you see a different type of man emerging, not one that’s aligned with these ridiculous sound bites he’s now known for. He seems to sincerely appreciate the greatness and intellect of the women in his life and career, and recognize the tremendous impact of powerful and brilliant female leaders today at Microsoft. He seems to be grateful for the impact that his influential female mentors and sponsors have had over his career that changed the course of it. He called out the critical contributions his wife makes to his family as well, and how those contributions support the “harmony” of his life and his children’s lives.
This does not appear to be a man who wants to keep women down, or believes that they should just be quiet and do a good job, and stop asking for more.
When it comes to what Nadella shares about women, there a critical context that’s important if you want to grasp the full meaning of his words.
First, he described one woman he worked for years ago who was an “amazing leader.” He said that she shared with him the harshest, most hardcore feedback he’d ever received. At the time, he was working hard and his insecurities were mounting about when he’d get the next job and if he was being sufficiently recognized for all his great work. His boss said, “Look dude, settle down, and think about the work you do, the craft, and believe in the system and the right things will happen.” He followed that advice, and in his view, that was the right advice.
Secondly, he tells a very revealing story about when he was 23 and interviewed early on at Microsoft. After a long, grueling day of interviews, the final interviewer asks this question:
“You’re standing in the crossroads, a baby falls and what are you going to do?”
Nadella stopped to think for a few minutes, and then said, “I’d try to run and get to a public phone and call 911.”
At that point, the interviewer gets up from his chair, walks Nadella out and says it’s time to leave. Confused, Nadella asks, “What exactly happened?” and the interviewer says, “What it shows is that you lack empathy. When a baby falls, you pick the baby up!”
Nadella shared that this taught him two lessons:
- The reality is that you can learn from anything and you still make it
- He was pretty positive that the ten thousand women in the audience would have answered the question better than he did. And so, that is a “superpower.” (I’m guessing he meant that empathy is one superpower that many women possess.)
He’s dead right. The truth is that ten thousand women would have answered that question better that he did, AND women would have tackled the issue of asking for a raise far better than Nadella did. Ms. Klawe addressed it perfectly. Her advice: Do your homework and ask for what you deserve.
My take on this is not that Nadella wants to keep women down and keep them quiet. It’s that, sadly, he lacks empathy and a true understanding of what women go through every day in corporate America to be treated with equality and fairness in terms of pay and other critical professional dimensions. The system might work for men, but it isn’t working for women, and it won’t, unless women do their homework, speak up, and ask for what they deserve.
In the coaching and leadership work that I do every day, I know this to be true: His lack of empathy and understanding is shared by thousands of other male leaders and managers throughout the world because they just haven’t lived the reality that women do. They haven’t lived what it is to be paid significantly less than every man at the table who is doing the same high-quality work. And this has created a serious and damaging blind spot that negatively affects the advancement of women.
One can only hope that this fiasco has served to remove Nadella’s blind spot, and the blind spots of many other influential male leaders the world over, forever.
Kathy Caprino, M.A. is a nationally-recognized career success coach, writer, trainer and speaker dedicated to the advancement of women in business. She is the author of Breakdown, Breakthrough:The Professional Woman’s Guide to Claiming a Life of Passion, Power and Purpose, and Founder/President of Ellia Communications, Inc. and the Amazing Career Project, focused on helping professional women build successful, rewarding careers of significance. A Forbes, Huffington Post and LinkedIn contributor and top media source on women’s career and workplace issues, she has appeared in over 100 leading newspapers and magazines and on national radio and television. For more information, visit www.kathycaprino.com and connect with Kathy on: Twitter, FB, LinkedIn.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.