A few days ago, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, made a highly criticized comment at the Grace Hopper Celebration Of Women in Tech Conference when being interviewed by Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College. He was specifically asked what advice he should give to women who are afraid to ask for a pay raise due to the sexist climate of the tech industry. The validity of such question is unquestionable – tech has long been entrenched with sexism in which women are not only afforded relatively less raises and opportunities, but also face an unwelcoming male-dominated climate. I do agree with some of the criticism of Satya’s comment, but the reaction it amounted from social media to major publications deeply concerned me both on the note of journalistic integrity and ethical understanding. I heard of this issue first when I came across an article by Sarah Gray, a contributor to Salon. She represented Satya’s opinion as:
“Don’t ask for raises, trust that your “super powers,” “the system” and “karma” will get you what you want. I’m not sure what mystical world Nadella is living in, but I imagine that there, raises gallop magically into a woman’s bank account via a unicorn.”
Sounds like a pretty bad thing for Satya to say – asking people to blindly trust a system that is inherently broken. But I eventually found the exact quote, and part of my heart sunk once reading it.
“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 raises have. Because that’s good karma, that’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; and in the long term, efficiency things catch up.”
And the article I found this quote in I find to be the most respectable piece of journalism on this topic – a write-up by Megan Ruthven from Medium who represented the full quote, as well as the apology on Twitter, prior to making her claim of the issues with his statement. And she makes a very articulate point:
“The fact that there is a high amount of emphasis given to underrepresented minorities in a lot of fields to promote participation in said field combined with the fact that the promoted participants are minorities means that the promoted would, more likely than not, receive advice from someone in the majority. The majority person, not always but frequently, would have never been in similar situations to the audience, and therefore, would not be able to properly empathize with the audience’s view.”
My concern lies with journalism published from other major publications in how they represent these situations, specifically how they represent it through the manipulation of quotes to make it sound more inflammatory and insensitive than it is. At least 9/10 titles state that Mr. Nadella believes that “Women Shouldn’t Ask for Raises” opposed to something more close-to-quote like “Karma Will Solve A Broken System.” In reality, Nadella isn’t saying women shouldn’t ask for raises, for that wasn’t even the question – the question was what advice should he give for women that are afraid to ask for a raise, a common circumstance due to the fears of being fired or perceived as too outgoing in a very sexist tech climate. Do I agree with Nadella’s response? Absolutely not. But I think many journalistic channels, all routed from Western sources, perceived this situation as “he was born in India after all, what do you expect?”
You may balk at that statement, and to be fair, it is not made explicitly in any article I read (though a direct quote found in the comments of many articles, if not all of them by anonymous commentators). But I do think that the specific way this opinion by Nadella was treated is a direct manifestation of cultural ignorance. Nadella first apologized that he badly articulated his response, and I see a kernel of truth in that apology. He was trying to say that this shouldn’t be an issue in the first place, and for those who are afraid to ask for a raise for often well justified reasons, be confident for karma will destroy the evils of the system. For a pragmatic realist, that might seem economically incoherent. But please note that Nadella does come from an Hinduistic background, and given that karma is a doctrine directly descended from that religion, it isn’t far fetched to say Nadella was simply giving a spiritual opposed to pragmatic answer: by being a good worker, your karma will benefit you back.
Imagine if he answered it differently. When asked for advice for women who are too afraid to ask for a raise, what if he just said “Just ask for a raise!” That doesn’t even answer the question. The true solution would be to educate individuals in the tech industry not to base relations with co-workers based on gender, but that response would seem off-base from a very specific topic. He could have nuanced his response on giving confidence, which perhaps would be the best way to respond, but Nadella honestly just chose to give a personal aphorism about life: evil may exist, but the good will prevail.