Friday, October 10, 2014

Microsoft: Why "Just Ask" is still a B-

Microsoft: Why "Just Ask" is Still a B-

In a positive sign that more and more people in the community are paying attention. The volume of "women in tech" (or rather lack of women in tech) debate has been rising. Albeit promoted by some egregious examples of thoughtless and worse behavior that has come into the public domain. (And safe to say this is just the tip of the iceberg.)

But there is a long way to go. Satya Nadella's comments at the recent Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference were summarized in a <re/code> post by Kara Swisher

Much has already been written on this massive women in tech faux pas. Here are my three cents on the topic:

1. The obvious - it's patronizing to talk about karma
No need to go over Mr Nadella's response to a question about women who are uncomfortable asking for a raise. Women earning 78c to the male $ across the US. Multiple studies highlighting the pay gap as not being a function of merit. So asking those being compensated at a discount to trust the system was, to be polite, tactless. However it also displays a touching belief in the meritocracy of tech in particular which is hard to square with observable realities. For example in another context a recent Babson study noted that in a recent three year period just 3% of companies receiving Venture Capital funding had women CEOs. Meritocracy? Really?

2. The less obvious - you need to understand why women don't ask in the first place
In a quick response to the furore these comments created Mr Nardella issued a I am sure heartfelt succinct apology via an email to all staff (and hence the public). Good for him. But I call this a Level 1 response. The "if you think you deserve a raise just ask" message is not enough. Because a more sophisticated Level 2 response would require a recognition that women don't ask (or rather they do but at a rate dramatically less than their male colleagues) and often for good reason ... if they are not careful they fall into the "double bind" trap. One where unconscious bias plays a part. This is a complex issue and one of the many that my colleagues at the Center for Talent Innovation have devoted years of effort into researching. A call to the Center's founder Sylvia Ann Hewlett might be in order! "Just Ask" is just a B- in my book.

3. And an obvious trap (or not) - you now need to be the change (you say) you want to be in the world

In my view Mr Nadella has fallen into a trap he set for himself. Something that Nilofer Merchant points out in an excellent post for Time. In his apology message to staff (and the public) he said:

"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."

Which is heartening to hear. But now the challenge to Microsoft is to, if I can mangle a line attributed to Ghandi: "Be the change it (says it) wants to be in the world". 

Nilofer makes this argument powerfully summarizing it as follows:

"Take action. Yourself. Bias is fixable. But (and this is a big but) only with conscious leadership."

Taking Nilofer's advice would move the Microsoft grade to an A.