Update 6:55 p.m. PT: Microsoft has now issued a statement in which CEO Satya Nadella fully retracts his earlier statements about women and pay raises.

Just when you thought women were advancing in the world, a major CEO says something to remind us why women are still behind.

And it happened at, of all places, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Today, when asked what advice he had for women who have never gotten or asked for a raise, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gave some really off-putting advice.

“It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raises as you go along,” Nadella said to the largely female crowd. It’s at 1:35:00 in the video below if you want to hear for yourself.

He may as well have said, “Remember that book Lean In? Yeah, not so much.” In fact the comment illuminates one of the reasons women are still woefully behind their male counterparts in terms of pay — because of expectations like Nadella’s. But before I jump all over Nadella, let’s give him a chance to clear himself. He responded in a tweet, saying that he misspoke:

OK, maybe he was just being inarticulate, though CEOs in his position have a lot less wiggle room for putting foot in mouth. That Nadella seems to think that pay inequality is the main problem here only shows how out of touch he is.

In 2014 we are starting to see slightly more women in leadership roles and more receptiveness to women in positions of power. A recent study by the American Psychological Society shows that people think that female leaders are just as effective as male leaders.

But more importantly, in the last few years we’ve started to have conversations about the professional advancement of women and what’s holding us back.

Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 book Lean In is a hallmark of this discussion. The book takes an intimate approach to engaging women, so that it feels like mentorship. But what it says, for those who haven’t read it, is that we as women need to step it up. Lean In is about being more confident, assertive, and strategic in a corporate setting. Though some saw the book’s message as offensive and Sandberg as privileged in position, others found it empowering.

If nothing else, the book jumpstarted talks about how we perceive women in the workplace. As a result, it’s surfaced that perhaps the issue of wage disparity is a lot more complex than just equalizing salaries.

There are a lot of road blocks to equalizing pay for women. For one, women may be holding themselves back in some ways, as Sandberg’s book points out. A recent study shows that women on average ask for $7,000 less than their male counterparts when negotiating salaries. We also tend to rate ourselves as less effective at our jobs, where men rate themselves as highly effective, according to the APS study I cited earlier.

Still other studies, such as one published by the American Psychological Association, have found that men feel worse about themselves when their wives and girlfriends succeed.

There are still a lot of questions about why women only make $0.77 for every dollar a man makes. But telling a room full of women that they should just have faith and wait until the system grants them the raise they deserve is offensive. Why on earth should women trust in a system that has repeatedly failed them and continues to do so?

Beyond that, Nadella’s advice is just bad business — karma has nothing to do with raises.

More enlightened companies than Microsoft, which is still very much white and male, are trying to devise new approaches to overcoming wage discrepancies. Google, for example, is drawing awareness to bias in the workplace as a way to restructure the how it values its employees. Who knows if that will work, but at least the thought process is in the right direction.

What’s scary about Nadella’s comments is that they may reflect a wider sentiment among male professionals and leaders that is trickling down to the female workforce. It’s words like these that undo the Lean In philosophy and the important strides that professional women have made.


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