When I first heard what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had said at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, I assumed it had been misreported.
Yeah, I know, me giving a Microsoft honcho the benefit of the doubt! What is the world coming to?
But it was difficult to believe that Nadella, when asked what advice he would offer women who are not comfortable asking for pay raises, would tell his audience of mostly technically savvy women, "It's not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise."
Difficult to believe, but true nonetheless.
Still, the mind boggles. In the tech industry, women typically still make significantly less than men. According to an American Association of University Womenstudy based on 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data, women's pay in many STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs still falls well behind that of men. For example, the median earnings for male computer and information systems managers in 2011 were just over $98,000, while their female counterparts were making around $86,000.
But according to Nadella (at least until he backed off of his comments later in the day), women should rely on karma to address that inequality. I am not kidding about this. Here is his actual quote: "And that might be one of the additional 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 is gonna know that's the kind of person I want to trust, that's the kind of person I want to really give additional responsibility to. And in the long-term efficiency, things will catch up."
Super powers? Karma? This is the kind of advice that women in technology can expect from the CEO of one of the biggest technology companies on the planet?
As it sunk in that these words had actually passed Nadella's lips in a public forum, a formulation came to mind: As Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, is to racism, so Nadella is now to feminism.
But instant karma, in the form of a frenzy of criticism on Twitter, got Nadella. And unlike Snyder, Nadella began backpedaling like crazy. Almost immediately, Nadella was spinning like a top. I haven't seen such flip-flopping since I put Washington, D.C., in my rear-view mirror.
This, he wants us to know, is how he really feels: "Without a doubt 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 [Klawe]'s advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask."
Good advice indeed. But which sound bite gives us the better glimpse of what Nadella really thinks?
Nadella apologists were quick to pop up, even before Nadella had "clarified" his views, to say that he didn't really mean what he had said. Curiously, all of them were men. But I don't see much room for confusion about Nadella's words. You cannot take the statement that not asking for a raise is a female super power and transmute it to mean what Nadella later said: "If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask." Nor do I buy the notion that Nadella was talking about some special Microsoft raise system.
This is what all of this really comes down to: Nadella, like many men, perhaps most of them, would rather not pay women equal rates for equal work.
That's the way it is in most industries, but there's evidence that it's worse in the technology sector. Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a civic and trade association, found that "Income inequality by gender is worse in Silicon Valley than it is for the whole of California: U.S. Census Bureau figures found that males with professional or graduate degrees earn 52 percent more than women when the entire population is taken into account, while men with a bachelor's degree earn 36 percent more."
You might think that's because women often work in "pink-collar" jobs. Think again. Claudia Williams, a research analyst for the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, found that "income inequality actually gets worse as incomes go up, not better."
Yes, there are women at the top in tech -- CEOs like HP's Meg Whitman, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and IBM's Ginni Rometty. That's great. But for far too many rank-and-file women working as system administrators, programmers or managers, paychecks are still significantly less than those of their male counterparts -- and that's just fine with their male bosses.
So here's hoping that if women do possess super powers, one of them is knowing BS when they hear it.