Female Workers Can’t Just “Shake Off” Microsoft CEO’s Sexist Comments

On Behalf of | October 14, 2014 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

If there is a bright spot to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s comments concerning women and raises last week, it is that his remarks have (re)opened a robust discussion about the real challenges women face in tackling the wage gap.

For those not up to speed, at a conference billedas the largest gathering of women technologists, Nadella — now infamously— advised women against asking for a raise, and opined that “knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along” would create “good karma” for “women who don’t ask for a raise.”

In the aftermath, there was a broad consensus that Nadella’s comments were completely off base, and the CEO went into immediate damage-control mode. But the pushback itself also has been instructive. Two feminist contingents have emerged, like two stylistically-clashing pop-stars competing for center stage.

The first group — which I would dub, tongue-in-cheek,  as the “Shake It Off” camp, à la Taylor Swift — has urged women to simply “shake off” Nadella’s comments and ask for more. According to this view, women make $.78 on the dollar in large part because they don’t ask. Conversely, the thinking goes, if they simply ask for more, that gap will close. This approach echoes the advice of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to “lean-in,” and was recently picked up  by CNBC career-coach Marie McIntyre, who advised blithely that “managers are hardly ever surprised, much less offended, when an employee raises the subject of a pay increase.” (By the way, click here for my colleague Maya Sequeira’s account of comedian Sara Silverman’s alternative approach to closing the wage gap).

The second, more nuanced, contingent — which I would dub the “Tightrope” camp after feminist raconteur Janelle Monáe— is less sanguine about the very real risks women face when they ask for more. Studies show that assertive women confront social and financial backlash at the bargaining table, and face greater penalties than men who ask for raises.   Indeed, upon this year’s ouster of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson — the first female executive editor in the paper’s 160-year history — one of the story’s most intriguing sub-plots was the fact that Abramson was nixed several weeks after she discovered that she was paid considerably less than her male predecessor and confronted her managers, who derided her as “pushy.” (For a great discussion of the gendered discourse surrounding Abramson’s ouster, see Natasha Geiling’s article for Bustle.)

As Sanford Heisler Managing Partner Kate Kimpel has advised, female employees are better off when they can see the tightrope, and find ways (including developing allies) to stay on top. Another resource worth checking out is the book What Works for Women at Work, co-authored by Joan Williams, the Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.