October 10, 2014

Satya Nadella : A Lesson in Privilege

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO was at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Arizona, and asked by Maria Klawe (Harvey Mudd College President and Microsoft board member) what women should do if they feel uncomfortable asking for a raise.

And well, he suggested that they don’t ask for raises. But believe in the system. And that not asking is a superpower and good kharma. (If you click the above link it has his full answer, his initial tweet about the backlash, as well as an email he sent to Microsoft employees that actually was a better response than the tweet).

Klawe disagreed immediately, and pointed out that she felt she hadn’t negotiated her pay in some positions and felt underpaid compared to male counterparts. And then she offered some actual advice- about doing research about pay for your position, and find someone you trust and roleplay the scenario until you’re comfortable.

So why did Nadella get it so wrong? Privilege. While he did later acknowledge the gap in pay that men and women make, he lives in a world where he can indeed trust the system. He can put in his work and have faith that his work would be recognized and he would receive fair raises accordingly.

To him, his answer made perfect sense- because it’s what he knows. I’m not excusing it. On the contrary. I think it was a sexist comment, and irresponsible of him to speak at a conference for women when this question made it clear that he hasn’t listened to women discuss their perspective on the issues. It’s one thing to acknowledge that there’s a gap in pay, it’s another to have listened to women discuss being steamrolled or labeled as being “difficult” or “greedy” when they’ve tried to ask for raises.

Because there is an incredible double standard in how men and women are treated in the workforce. A man and a woman could react the same way, but the man’s assertiveness in a woman could be read as being domineering. A man’s to the point, where the woman’s bitchy. The man know’s what he wants, and the woman’s labeled as power hungry.

So if a woman asked for a raise, they could be labeled as not being a team player for pointing out that they’re carrying their department. Or conversely, if their concerns do come out, they could have their fears completely dismissed and then being labeled spineless. Those are all examples that I heard from friends, and yes, I was asked “if I had a spine or not” when I admitted I’d been nervous to point out that the work I was doing was worth more than what I was paid.

And those labels stick. Much like the “you look tired” comment that even the Doctor (in Doctor Who) used to destroy Harriet Jones’s career as Prime Minister. Even if the Doctor was right that her actions were wrong, the path he chose to destroy her was deeply rooted in our gender inequalities. A man in a leadership role (political or business) can be tired, and we won’t question his capability. But with a woman, we wonder if the role was simply too much for them.

That single question to Nadella proved how important it is that people with privilege understand what privilege is. Because if you have it? You start out being unaware of it. It isn’t until you listen to the people who do have societal labels that hold them back- race, gender, sexuality… that you can see what’s going on. And actually understand what you’re being asked.

So my advice? Listen. If you have any doubt that you’re not understanding the full extent of what’s being asked – ask for clarification. Listen and ask questions, two actions that we should all take to heart.

Your thoughts?

Tagged with: , , , , ,