A Fool and Her Money…Must Work for Microsoft

Satya Nadella.jpg

Last week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella ignited a nationwide firestorm when he advised women in the workforce not to ask for raises. Ladies, he said, keeping your traps shut was “good karma. It will come back.”

Had women followed that deeply flawed and circuitous logic, I doubt they would yet have won the right to vote.

He even said that women needed to have “faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” Women who still earn about 77 cents for every dollar that men do might have a few words to say about that. Two words would suffice, actually.

The negative backlash from his comment, via social and mainstream media, was so swift that Nadella’s PR handlers immediately tried to spin a “what I meant to say” correction, but no one was buying it.  They also swiftly squirreled him away and out of the media’s reach, claiming he had another appointment.

Equally moronic was that he made his demeaning comment to a largely female audience at a conference celebrating women in computing, thereby thumbing his nose at the wise adage for speakers: Know your audience. 

In a follow-up backtracking email the next day to 120,000 Microsoft employees, about a third of whom are women, he wrote, “I answered that question completely wrong. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.”

On that belated point, I agree. And I’ve never forgotten it was a remarkable woman who first laid it out for me and opened my eyes forever.

The late Harriet Braiker, Ph.D., noted clinical and social psychologist and New York Times bestselling author, used to explain to her readers and her audience when she gave speeches, that women were largely to blame for lagging behind the pay scales of their male counterparts, and she urged them – and taught them – how to speak up and negotiate for and get the money they deserved. 

Long before Sheryl Sandberg’s message of lean in, women were riveted to Dr. Braiker’s compelling message of speak up and negotiate. 

Using numbers that were more relevant back then than today, she would cite the example of two new college graduates, a 22-year-old man and a woman of the same age, both being offered jobs at the same company at identical starting salaries of $25,000. The woman accepts, but the man negotiates a higher starting salary of $5,000 more, or $30,000 to start.

Assuming a very modest three percent per year bump in base salary, over the course of the next 28 years, the man will earn $361,177 more than the woman. (And this is without taking into account that negotiators don’t just get better starting pay, they also win bigger raises over the course of their careers.)

Think that story is apocryphal? In 2007, The Washington Post reported on a study of Masters Degree students who had received job offers. Four times as many men – 51 percent vs. 12.5 percent of the women – pushed for – and received – a better deal.

But most women, Dr. Braiker wrote, are genetically wired to “be nice” – they’re called “people pleasers” – and avoid confrontations, and therefore naturally shy away from negotiations for fear of not being liked.

Monica Guzman, columnist for the Seattle Times, told this personal – and painful –  anecdote in her recent piece on the Microsoft flap:

“I sat stiff in my swivel chair, the new salary I wanted drumming in my head. When he started talking about the company’s budget, I thought of the compensation research I had done with my husband, the role playing I did with my business-savvy friend.

“I gave a number, we shook hands and when I left the room, I wanted to vanish. I had asked for half the raise I wanted, and I knew why. When the moment came, I didn’t want to be paid what I was worth. I wanted the out-of-town executive — whom I would never see again — to like me.

“I used to hide this story as one of the most shameful personal failures of my career.”

 Ms. Guzman is not alone. Girls and women just want to be liked.

In her bestselling book, The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome, Dr. Braiker helps readers identify and understand the problem with that affliction. It’s not that there’s anything inherently “wrong” with being nice, it’s just that many women use that as an artificial crutch to avoid speaking up for what they really want.

And, she explained, women have their mothers and grandmothers to blame. It’s almost hereditary, handed down generation to generation.

Want proof? What do mothers typically say when their daughters go out to play? “Be nice.” What do fathers say when their sons take the field? “Be tough out there!” Thus, boys – who grow up to become men – are taught at an early age to be aggressive.

But, Dr. Braiker was also quick to point out the double-edged sword that women face. Men could be “aggressive,” but women could be labeled as “bitches” for behaving the same way.

She would often use the famous Goldberg Paradigm with her audiences to illustrate the built in bias.

In this experiment, men and women were asked to evaluate and rate a speech given by a man named John McKay. Typically, based on his actions, he is judged to be bold, aggressive and decisive. But, when one single letter in the speech is changed, so are the assessments. What’s the letter? Changing the “h” in John to an “a” for Joan. Then, terms such as shrill, overbearing, and emotional are used by readers to describe Joan.

But what I found to be most surprising in the study is that women who read the paper were the harsher critics of “Joan” than men.

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff, in a 2008 piece entitled “When Women Rule,” wrote “For women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.”

It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure, but women need to deal with it, which is partly what made Dr. Braiker so successful and her readers so loyal. (A full list of Dr. Braiker’s books can be found at HarrietBraiker.com. Also, full disclosure, Dr. Braiker and I were married until her untimely passing in 2004).

But back to Satya Nadella and his foot implanted firmly in his mouth.

At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I wonder if part of his narrow and outdated mindset stems from having been born in India. Can you imagine Bill Gates or his successor, Steve Balmer, ever saying such a thing about women workers? How about the (American born and raised) CEO of any other Fortune company? Women in the U.S. have made great and important strides over the years, more so than their counterparts in India. On the one hand, that is surprising, if for no other reason than India had a long serving woman prime minister. We are still awaiting our first female president. But boys are more highly valued in India, where, according to CNN, about half a million female fetuses are aborted every year because of the national preference for boys.

Mr. Nadella can backpedal until the cows come home, but you can’t put that toothpaste back into the tube. He showed his true colors and his true feelings when he answered that seemingly innocuous question.

At least, women who work at Microsoft can now do so with their eyes opened.