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This week, when Satya Nadella, chief executive of the Redmond, Washington-based software group, faced a question about what women should do to be paid more, he firmly stuck both feet in his mouth.
“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raises as you go along,” he said, adding that such patience was “good karma”.
Even worse, he did it at a celebration of women in technology that is named after the late Grace Hopper, the legendary US navy rear admiral and pioneering computer scientist. Famous for coining the phrase “computer bug” (named when an actual insect caused a mysterious failure), she spent much of her later life giving speeches aimed at inspiring young mathematicians and scientists (both female and male).
Mr Nadella did backtrack within hours, writing in an email to employees that the company made public: “Answered that question completely wrong . . . If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.”
But it is hard to believe that Mr Nadella would have said the same thing if the questioner had been one of his hotshot male software engineers. The contrast could not be starker than with the advice of Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who added specific tips on negotiating pay to the latest edition of her book, Lean In.
Mr Nadella’s off-the-cuff advice seems to confirm the sneaking suspicion that many women have about their companies – that they reward men for being forceful but penalise the same behaviour in women as “pushy”. Every year, my first newspaper had to publish annual salary figures by position and gender as part of the settlement of a discrimination complaint. And every year, the statistics for my category showed a sizeable gender gap. Yet I bumped along there for 17 years without ever negotiating hard about my salary. It was only when the Financial Times came calling that I forcefully demanded more.
Technology is actually better than some fields when it comes to gender pay gaps. Women engineers make 89 cents for every dollar their male colleagues earn, compared to 66 cents in finance and 71 cents in law, according to data from Claudia Goldin, the Harvard University economist. But that may be because women engineers are so rare. Five out of every six tech employees at Microsoft, Google and Facebook are male.
And the West Coast tech companies are not winning any awards for promoting women. The latest statistics from Microsoft show that while women make up 29 per cent of its total workforce (including lots of female non-tech workers), they are just 17 per cent of its leadership. Google and Facebook do slightly better on the senior ranks at 21 per cent and 23 per cent respectively. Last month, the group behind dating app Tinder settled a discrimination lawsuit with Whitney Wolfe, its former vice-president for marketing. She had alleged sexual harassment and that other executives said that having a 24-year-old “ girl founder” would devalue the company.
The world has changed since Ms Hopper faced restrictions limiting her promotion in the navy and the academic lab where she worked during the second world war. But remarks like Mr Nadella’s remind us just how slowly it moves.