Gender Gap

Microsoft's CEO Apologized, But He Was Actually Half Right

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OK, first off, let's just say that it never pays to go to a conference full of business women -- or anyone for that matter -- and tell them to do nothing to help their careers. Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella essentially did just that, when he answered a question about how women could increase pay and opportunities by saying they should focus on "good karma." The "let go, let God" approach only goes so far.

But Nadella was too quick to backtrack from his remarks because he was on to something. And it actually could have been a great step forward in tackling what is perceived to be a problem with gender inequality in both jobs and pay at tech companies.

First, rather than focus on his alleged gaffe, let's look at exactly what he said. He was asked how women could get ahead. "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," Nadella replied. "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."

The knee-jerk reaction was that Nadella had somehow told women specifically that they shouldn't ask for a raise. To be exact, he sidestepped that, saying it is "not really about asking for the raise." Rather, it is "having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises."

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It's the faith issue that got Nadella in hot water. One can't live by bread alone, but one can also not live by faith alone, either. My whole business at The Occupreneur Coach is based around helping people apply entrepreneurial principles to their daily work, in order to jumpstart their own careers. Getting noticed and standing out in an organization is a key part of that. Faith that companies will notice doesn't come into play too much in my client conversations.

But, whether he knew it or not, Nadella did raise an interesting point. Instead of being aggressive, pushing to be noticed and focusing on getting higher pay, he suggested that organizations need to be better about watching, evaluating and identifying the best employees (regardless of gender and race, by the way) and rewarding them. In this view, it is up the company, not the employee, to ensure everyone is paid fairly and well.

That seems to be the way all companies should operate, but it actually challenges the orthodoxy of the equal-pay or gender-gap movements nowadays. Think about it: Even seminal works like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In or the efforts like Girls Who Code put the responsibility on the worker. You, as a woman, aren't loud enough. You, as a woman, didn't pick the right college major.

In Nadella's world -- and, one imagines, in his company, too -- the responsibility is on the organization. That faith in the system he suggested comes because, if there is a gender gap in business, it is because businesses didn't do enough to stop it. That means companies have to hire better, pay better and evaluate talent internally better. Not enough CEOs are saying this. Instead, they are having their companies fund outside efforts to fix the employees, as if it is their fault. Instead, many of the resources going to organizations designed to help women succeed should instead be reinvested internally to help all the best employees move up. That's a pretty good idea, no?

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Admittedly, the responsibility of pushing companies to make internal changes is just one part of the puzzle. There are a number of ways I help my clients -- men and women -- get noticed and get more pay and more responsibility. After all, your destiny is in your hands, not someone else's. Taking control of your career and being active about making changes and making a difference for your organization is important for professional growth.

But putting more onus on the companies themselves can help correct a lot of problems, too. For instance, better human-resources evaluation of employees will help better see employee dynamics. I've always contended that the so-called glass ceiling is caused as much by women as by men. In my own previous career on Wall Street, women did way more to try to set me back than men did. Good, honest, objective evaluations of employee behavior and talents can end some of this pettiness.

Sadly, with Nadella's quick apology and backtracking, the issue he raised will likely be lost. I wouldn't be surprised if, as part of an apology tour, Microsoft donated more money to interest groups related to the gender gap. That's unfortunate, since Microsoft -- in creating the system Nadella told us to have faith in -- could do more to advance women through internal soul-searching and investment than any outside foundation could. After all, it remains a huge employer in the technology space.

That could have been the best karma -- for women, for all employees, for the tech space and for U.S. corporations. Instead, I fear "I'm sorry" is all we will remember from what could have been an important moment for American employees.

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