What We Can Learn from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s Apology

October 21, 2014


Photo courtesy of  Bhupinder Nayyar, Flickr

Photo courtesy of Bhupinder Nayyar, Flickr

“A humbling and learning experience.”

That’s how Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella characterized the aftermath of his remarks on women and pay raises. And it’s the kind of experience I hope the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) communities continue to have—the sooner the better.

Employers and senior leaders in the science and tech industries need to recognize the barriers that women in the workforce face when it comes to fair pay, promotions, or simply getting their foot in the door.

Just look at the engineering and computing workforce, where employers can little afford to miss out on the competitive advantage efficient and engaged employees bring. More than 80 percent of all STEM jobs are in these fields, yet women make up just 25 percent of the computing workforce and 14 percent of the engineering workforce. The number of African American, Hispanic, and Native American women is even more discouraging.

From seventh grade science classes to doctorate programs for mathematics, women are told they do not belong in STEM, despite the fact that some of these industries were literally invented by women. Yet, stereotypes about women’s abilities persist, to pervasive negative effect. Studies have shown that when students are told that men are better than women at a skill, the men will outperform women on the subsequent test of that skill. However, when test takers are told that men and women perform equally well in that same skill, the test results even out. In some cases, the women even outperform the men.

Who knew that when we tell girls that math is too hard for them or push women toward pink-collar jobs, they might actually listen? The few who still pursue STEM despite these societal messages find themselves in a chilly climate. A recent survey of 700 women who left the tech industry found that the work environment—not the work itself—chased women out the door.

“Literally 28 of the 30 people in our company were white, straight men under 35,” one front-end developer said in the survey. “I was the only woman. I was one of only two gay people. I was the only person of color other than one guy from Japan. My coworkers called me Halle Berry. As in, ‘Oh look, Halle Berry broke the website today.’ I’m pretty sure for some of them I’m the only actual black person they’ve ever spoken to. Everyone was the same, and no one was like me. How could I stay in that situation?”

And then there’s the wage gap. Yes, even in the high-paying worlds of engineering and computing, women take home smaller paychecks than their male counterparts. A typical male aerospace engineer took home just over $100,000 in 2011, while his female counterpart was paid $83,000. The difference between their salaries could pay off student debt or make a down payment on a house.

Dismantling the barriers women face in these fields is well worth it. Careers in STEM offer promising prospects: challenging and rewarding work in some of the highest-paying careers. These opportunities should be available to women.

But getting more women into STEM fields isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. The solutions of this century are likely to come when we tap 100 percent of the population. A diversity of perspectives and approaches will encourage a flourish of innovation and creativity. What company doesn’t want that?

Nadella’s apology offers a glimmer of hope for these industries. “My advice underestimated exclusion and bias — conscious and unconscious — that can hold people back,” he wrote in an internal company memo. “Any advice that advocates passivity in the face of bias is wrong. Leaders need to act and shape the culture to root out biases and create an environment where everyone can effectively advocate for themselves.”

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A thousand times, yes. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Yahoo have all publicly acknowledged that they have a problem recruiting, retaining, and ensuring that women thrive within their walls. Now we can start moving toward solutions. Businesses can proactively conduct salary audits to monitor and address gender-based pay difference. They can offer paid family leave and personal medical leave. CEOs and senior leadership can educate themselves about stereotypes and biases and take steps to actively recruit women and address chilly workplace climates.

In research to be released early next year, my colleagues at AAUW will shed more light on the hows, whys, and now-whats behind women’s underrepresentation in computing and engineering. Until then, we hope the conversation around women in STEM continues to be a humbling and learning experience that brings real change for women in these fields.

By:   |   October 21, 2014

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