The Bigger Problem with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s Comments

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Satya_Nadella

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

At this point, it’s difficult to recall what things were like pre-Sheryl Sandberg. These days, hardly a week goes by without something reigniting the discussion about the work that we, as women, need to be doing to get ahead.

Work harder. Do more. Speak up. Lean In.

If you hadn’t heard of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing before, you have now thanks to Microsoft’s CEO. When Satya Nadella made his foot-in-mouth comments last week, everyone reacted so quickly that he issued an apology that very same day. In the event you’ve been hiding under a rock, the most controversial tidbit was as follows:

“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 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. That’s the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to.”

I watched the entire video, and encourage you to do so, as well. There is almost an hour of conversation between Nadella and Klawe (president of Harvey Mudd) that had the complete opposite message of the two-and-a-half-minute tidbit he’ll be remembered for here. Needless to say, I watched it, re-watched it, read reactions, read his statement, read everything I could find. The shocking part to me wasn’t so much that he said what he did, but how unsurprising his comments have become — how commonplace they seem to be no matter how much we “lean in”.

Nadella’s comments have been picked apart and discussed so heavily the past few days that at this point, there’s not much left to be said that hasn’t been said already. While I’m disappointed in him, specifically — regardless of whether he says it’s not what he meant — there are still a few overarching issues I hope that his remarks bring to light.

1) This is Not a Tech Problem, It’s a Workplace Problem

More often than not, the conversation that results from comments like these is one focused on the disparity within the tech industry. Whether it’s regarding women being underpaid in Silicon Valley, the gender-bias that exists in tech companies, or the need for educating and encouraging young women to pursue careers in tech, it all focuses solely on this one industry. While that’s certainly important, and tech is clearly a male-dominated field, it’s also important to note that this is not a problem confined to tech. This is an every-industry issue. Women are being paid less and being treated differently across the board.

2) This is Not a Women’s Problem, It’s a People Problem

Women are almost always the ones leading the discussion when it comes to the gender gap. You might say that’s only natural, as it affects us the most, so of course we’re going to be the ones to drive it forward. Men, however, not only need to be part of the conversation, they need to be leading it, as well. Of the Fortune 1000 list, women currently hold 5% of CEO seats. We talk about this statistic often, almost always in relation to what women can be doing on a daily basis to get to the top. There’s no question it’s a frustrating percentage. However, we also need to recognize that it’s the men that make up that 95% who have the ability (and responsibility) to directly affect change when it comes to gender gap — and specifically the wage gap — in the workplace. Time to get in the driver’s seat, guys.

3) This is Not an Employee Problem, It’s a Leadership Problem

Go back to that number for a second: 95%. It’s staggering. I think that’s what makes Nadella’s comments even that much more frustrating. He spends quite a bit of time during this event advocating for women in the workplace, talking about how much his mentors have shaped him, etc. What he doesn’t do, however, is talk about what he, as a male CEO of one of the most highly recognizable companies in the world, has done to make changes when it comes to inequality in the workplace. He is, more than most, in a position to make positive, substantial changes both at his company and in his industry as a whole.

I think the main point of this is, yes, we’ve received the lean-in message loud and clear. We’ve been working for quite some time to shift the discussion and close the gender gap. What men like Nadella aren’t understanding, however, is that there is only so much to be done. In order for significant change to be made, everyone — men, women, CEO’s, employees — needs to be part of the conversation and working towards the same goal, not just women.