The online reaction to Satya Nadella’s now-famous comments during a Q&A about women’s pay yesterday was swift and unsympathetic. The Microsoft CEO’s subsequent tweet to clarify what he said, followed by a statement on the company’s website that was a full reversal of his initial answer on whether women should ask for a raise, did little to stem the backlash. So what was the reaction inside the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, where he made the comments?
As one of around 7,500 in the audience (and one of almost 500 men at the convention), I cringed along with everyone else when Nadella offered this advice to women who aren’t comfortable asking for a raise: Believe in the system and the right things will happen. Take the long view and you’ll be rewarded in the long run. It was advice he was once given — by his female boss, he noted. Up until that point, the interview had been a fairly light-hearted affair. Nadella had talked convincingly about the need for substantive change in the tech industry. Little did he realize he was going to propel himself into the middle of that movement in an embarrassing way.
Afterwards, I asked a variety of female attendees what they thought. Some saw his comments as an innocent gaffe, while others felt it was a disturbing example of tone-deafness that showed how much further male leaders have to go to truly make diversity a serious priority. Dilma Da Silva, a former IBM and Qualcomm executive who recently became head of the computer science and engineering department at Texas A&M, said “his comments were surprising and show he’d never really reflected on the topic. The research shows that women tend not to be speak up about being ready for the next role as often as men, so what he said is the opposite of what he should have said.”
And while she was concerned by Nadella’s comments, she thought the backlash was counter-productive. That was the reaction from Intel manager Patty Lopez. “I admire Nadella’s courage in having the conversation,” she said. “He addressed it quickly and apologized for the misstep. We have to allow room for our male allies to learn and grow, and to keep the conversation moving forward.” While it was fine for technology companies to disclose their abysmal diversity data, the real progress will come when male-led companies engage in the difficult conversations and make the tough organizational and cultural tweaks to bring in and promote more women.
That engagement is now what worries Maria Klawe, a Microsoft director and superstar of the women in tech movement, who interviewed Nadella on stage. “I managed to get three CEOs to come this year for the first time, after Satya agreed first,” she said. If the first time they appear, they “blow one question and get dissed for it, it has the potential to dissuade other men from becoming involved.” Klawe said that even amid the backlash, Nadella committed to coming to the conference for the next four years.
Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, which puts on the conference, isn’t concerned about booking a high-profile CEO to give the keynote next year. Instead, her worry “is whether we can get them to be authentic when they get here.” Whether Nadella’s comments were an honest mistake or an honest response, it did provide a moment of authenticity that should serve as a louder wake-up call for the tech industry to change. Not that they needed Nadella to remind them.