After gaffe, Microsoft CEO says he was 'wrong' on women's pay

Satya Nadella does an about-face after suggesting women in tech shouldn't ask for raises but instead rely on "good karma." He now wants to lead the tech industry in gender equality.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
4 min read

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says he now wants to lead the industry on diversity. James Martin/CNET

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella inadvertently shined a light on gender inequality with a public blunder on Thursday. During an event focused on women in tech, he suggested women shouldn't ask for raises but rather trust that the system will take care of them.

"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," Nadella said in the interview, which was at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Phoenix. "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," Nadella continued. "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."

Nadella's statement caused an uproar on social media and among gender equality advocates. But Vivek Wadhwa, an outspoken author and academic on diversity in the tech world, said the gaffe may actually bring more gender equality to the industry.

Wadhwa corresponded with Nadella on Friday morning. The CEO told him he regrets his statements and now wants Microsoft to be an agent of change in regard to gender disparity in the tech industry.

"He said that he just gave a wrong and terrible answer to the question,'" Wadhwa told CNET. "He wants to now lead the industry on diversity."

Shortly after his statement on Thursday, Nadella took to Twitter to apologize, saying, "Was inarticulate re how women should ask for raise. Our industry must close gender pay gap so a raise is not needed because of a bias." He also penned an email to his employees to say he "answered that question completely wrong" and that "men and women should get equal pay for equal work." He added that "If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask."

Nadella's remarks come just days after Microsoft released its diversity statistics. The tech giant follows Google, Facebook, Twitter and other companies in divulging data on the gender and racial breakdown of its employees. According to Microsoft, women now comprise 29 percent of its worldwide workforce, which is up from 24 percent over the past year. As far as racial data, 60.6 percent of its world staff is white, 28.9 percent is Asian, 5.1 percent is Latino and 3.5 percent is black. These numbers are similar to most other tech companies that have published diversity statistics.

Women and people of color in the tech industry also tend to receive lower pay than white males. Women in technology earn $6,358 less than their male counterparts, on the average, and women with at least one child earn $11,247 less than everyone else, according to a report released last month from the American Institute for Economic Research.

While the tech world is often criticized for its lack of diversity and income equality, Nadella's remarks and subsequent apologies have sparked additional conversation about the topic. Gender equality advocate organization Ms. Foundation for Women has called on Nadella to follow up his apology with concrete actions and to "fix the sexism bug at Microsoft."

"While we appreciate Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's quick apology and admission that his advice to women in tech was flat-out wrong, we're disheartened by the fact that systemic sexism still exists, as women in tech work hard to make strides toward economic security," Teresa C. Younger, Ms. Foundation president and CEO, said in a statement sent to CNET. "Microsoft and the entire tech industry must ensure that women are recruited, promoted and compensated fairly -- receiving the same opportunities as men."

Like Ms. Foundation, Wadhwa is known for criticizing top tech companies and venture capital firms for their lack of gender diversity. He has famously gotten into virtual tit-for-tats with venture capital titan Marc Andreessen and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. Andreessen blocked Wadhwa on Twitter after Wadhwa questioned him about bias toward white males with his fund's investments. And, after Wadhwa criticized Costolo for having few women in management at Twitter, Costolo called Wadhwa "the Carrot Top of academic sources."

However, Wadhwa said he strongly believed Nadella when Nadella said he wants to be a part of the solution.

"I believe that Satya is as supportive of women as I am and know this will make him much more sensitive to the problems that women face," Wadhwa said. "I expect a lot of good to come from this mistake -- with him becoming a role model for other CEOs in fostering equality and diversity."