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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (GeekWire File Photo)

Update, 6:15 p.m. — Nadella wrote an email to Microsoft employees after the interview noting that he “answered that question completely wrong.” See the full email at the bottom of this post. 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is under fire this afternoon following comments he made during an interview at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Arizona. When asked by Harvey Mudd College President and Microsoft board member Maria Klawe about what women who were uncomfortable asking for a raise should do, he hearkened back to former Microsoft President Mike Maples.

Maples said that all human resources systems are “long-term efficient, and short-term inefficient.” In that view, Nadella said, it’s not about asking for a raise, but knowing that the system will give the right raises as someone goes along in their career.

And that, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have. 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. 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 I wonder – and I’m not saying that that’s the only approach, I wonder whether taking the long term helps solve for what might be perceived as this uncomfortable thing of, hey, am I getting paid right? Am I getting rewarded right? Because reality is your best work is not followed with your best rewards. Your best work then has impact, people recognize it, and then you get the rewards. And so you have to somehow think that through, I think.

Satya Nadella
Satya Nadella at the event today.

His comments, first reported by Readwrite’s Selena Larson, rang hollow in the room. That makes sense, considering that the median income for a woman working full time in the U.S. is 78 percent of what a man is paid.

Klawe disagreed with him, saying that she didn’t negotiate for a higher salary when she was hired as the Dean of Engineering at Princeton, nor when she was hired for her job at Harvey Mudd.

In both cases, she felt she was underpaid compared to her peers at other institutions.

“First of all, do your homework,” she said. “Make sure that you actually know what a reasonable salary is when you’re being offered a job, do not be as stupid as I was. Second thing is, roleplay. Sit down with someone you really trust, and practice asking them for the salary you deserve.”

“That’s great,” Nadella said.

In a follow-up tweet, the Microsoft CEO called his remarks “inarticulate,” and said that the tech industry needs to close the gender pay gap, but didn’t offer any further insights. A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company didn’t have anything more to say.

It’s possible that Nadella’s personal experience in the workplace may have had a key influence on his remarks. Earlier in the interview, Nadella said he was told by former Microsoft Vice President Kathleen Hebert, his manager at the time, to relax and not worry so much about how much recognition he was receiving for his work.

“(She) basically said ‘look dude, settle down and think about the work you do, the craft, the impact, and believe in the system and the right things will happen,'” he said. In the past, Microsoft’s controversial employee stack rank system — dropped last year under missives of then CEO Steve Ballmer— upset many workers who claimed it was unfair.

The “stack ranking” process rated employees on a fixed curve, which had the effect of giving a lower standing and compensation to some employees — even in cases where their managers might have felt they deserved more.

Some of the Microsoft CEO’s other remarks received a warmer reception from the crowd, including his discussion of how he balances his work and family life.

Nadella’s remarks can be viewed in full in this video from the Anita Borg Institute, which runs the Celebration. (The interview starts around minute 48 and the comments in question start around minute 135.)

Update, 6:15 p.m. —Nadella sent an email to Microsoft employees after the interview:

All – Today I was interviewed on stage by Maria Klawe at the Grace Hopper Conference – I encourage you to watch the video. It was great to spend time with so many women passionate about technology. I was honored to be a part of it and I left the conference energized and inspired.

Toward the end of the interview, Maria asked me what advice I would offer women who are not comfortable asking for pay raises. I answered that question completely wrong. Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap. I believe men and women should get equal pay for equal work. And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it’s deserved, Maria’s advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.

I said I was looking forward to the Grace Hopper Conference to learn, and I certainly learned a valuable lesson. I look forward to speaking with you at our monthly Q&A next week and am happy to answer any question you have.

Satya

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