Maybe she didn’t exactly anticipate this at the time, but Maria Klawe offered women a rare glimpse at think-on-your-feet leadership last week.
Unfortunately, it was nearly overshadowed by controversy.
In case you missed it: Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College in California, interviewed Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella during the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. Towards the end of their nearly hour-long conversation, Nadella offered this suggestion:
"It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise. That might be one of the initial 'super powers,' that quite frankly, women (who) don’t ask for a raise have. It’s good karma. It will come back."
His quote was picked up by ReadWrite and quickly (and appropriately) spurred ire around the web.
Not surprisingly, he issued a swift apology, which deferred to Klawe: "Maria’s advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask."
Though it was great that Nadella acknowledged Klawe after the fact, her polite but firm dissent is an example for women in any industry when confronted by a tone-deaf response from a male leader —even one you admire.
When their talk began, Klawe gave Nadella praise for being the first male CEO of a major company to speak at a plenary session during the technical executive forum.
The conversation led by Klawe and questions from the attendees covered such topics as career choices and work-life balance, the latter not usually asked of men. Throughout, Klawe agreed with Nadella’s assessments and advice—until the point where he fumbled the question on pay raises. Klawe, who spent the earlier part of the conversation talking about how much she admired Nadella, didn’t miss a beat before saying this was one of the few things she didn’t agree with him on.
To back up her dissent, Klawe quickly pulled anecdotes from her own career, citing the time she neglected to negotiate salary before accepting the position of dean of engineering at Princeton, a mistake she estimates set her back about $50,000 per year. She remarked that she did it again when staying mum on the salary offer for her current presidentship, even though she felt as though it was low. "Don’t be as stupid as I was," Klawe told the audience.
The day after the conference, Klawe told Fast Company, "I obviously think its important to coach people how to ask for raises and resources, so I disagreed with him."
This is especially important at a company such as Microsoft, where recently released diversity numbers show that female employees are outnumbered.
Microsoft said its global workforce was made up of 29% women and those who held tech roles were among only 17.1% of the entire staff. That overall number is about on par with Apple, Google, and other big technology corporations.
The (scant) good news is that female computer scientists are earning 89% of what their male counterparts earn, according to Harvard University labor economist Claudia Goldin.
But that doesn’t mean they should trust the system will catch up. Learning how to negotiate effectively is important, and Klawe also notes that it helps to come in armed with data. "Do your homework and research salaries," she says, "They vary by city and state."
Klawe also notes, "One of the things I am very deliberate about is talking about my own failures." Indeed she spoke to us candidly about her decades-long battle with impostor syndrome and her strategies to stop feeling like a fraud. This is extremely important, says Klawe, because, "I am generally regarded as being successful and people think we don’t make mistakes."
As a Microsoft board member, it’s not surprising that Klawe says she feels "badly about the bad press Microsoft is getting from this," especially since the reaction in the room was mostly positive toward Nadella during and after his appearance. "On the other hand it is a tremendous opportunity," she says.
Klawe says she just got back from a lunch with 25 women where the talk focused on what happened at the conference. The upshot: "All companies need to take a closer look at pay practices." Asserting that she is "a big believer in honest and open discussion," Klawe says that Microsoft will eventually end up in a much better place thanks to the attention on the issue. "[Nadella] is going to learn a lot more," she says.