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Microsoft CEO sexist comment about women's pay reflects bigger problem in tech industry: Gender bias

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has apologized for a comment he made during a technology conference with 7,500 female engineers in attendance, where he said that women should wait for "karma" instead of actively going out and asking for a pay raise.

Ironically, the comment was made during a conference celebrating the role of Grace Hopper, a computer scientist who helped pioneer computer programming in America. Asked what his advice was for women who were looking to get a raise or a promotion but were hampered by the social stigma that women who promote themselves at work are seen as too aggressive, Nadella had the following to say:

"It's not about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. 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 I want to really give more responsibility to."

Nadella's comment sparked backlash on social media, and although he already admitted his gaffe in an email sent to employees and posted on the Microsoft website, saying that he "answered that question completely wrong," the Microsoft chief's remarks show just how loose of a grip he has on the gender bias that riddles most of Silicon Valley's male-dominated companies and startups.

Nadella was speaking as part of an interview with Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and part of Microsoft's board of directors. Klawe said she agreed with Nadella on most of the issues, but she immediately disagreed with him on the question about pay raises for women. She said that women working in the technology industry should do their homework and find out the acceptable salary levels for the job before accepting any position. Klawe cites her own acceptance of a job offer as dean of engineering at Princeton University without asking for a specific salary.

The news comes amidst a flurry of diversity reports released by major technology companies examining the makeup of their workforce. Microsoft reported earlier this year that only 29 percent of its staff are made of women, but only 17.3 percent of the technical workforce. Facebook had a slight larger percentage with 31 percent, but only 15 percent had technical positions. Google wasn't any different with only 30 percent of its staff composed of women.

Although there is no shortage of high-profile women who hold significant management positions in technology companies, such as Yahoo's Marissa Meyer, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Oracle's Safra Catz, the number of women who hold positions in the technology industry as a whole have seen a drop compared to the numbers from decades ago. According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 37 percent of women graduated with computer science degrees in 1985. That number dropped to 18 percent in 2012. Also, in 1990, 37 percent of jobs in the technology industry were held by women. In 2012, that was only 25 percent.

The problem, says researcher Catherine Ashcraft of the University of Colorado, is that despite a multitude of programs encouraging women to go into technology, these programs do not take into account the "geek culture" where technology workers stay up all night working on their projects. Ashcraft says these programs "ignore important factors that shape girls' identities and education/career choices - not least broader narratives around gender, race and sexuality."

That's not even touching upon the gender divide in average earnings. A study by the American Association of University Women reports that men generally earn 78 percent more than women. At Microsoft, for instance, a man working as a software engineer typically earned $137,000 a year, while a woman in the same position made $129,000. That's according to Glassdoor, a website that provides information on jobs and salaries submitted by anonymous employees.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg first brought to light the gender gap in the industry in her book "Lean In," where she wrote that asking for a raise or a promotion was just "like trying to cross a minefield backward in high heels."

"Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful," she says. "But women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost."

Nadella is the first male executive to be invited to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

"Without a doubt, I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap," he says. "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."

Below is a video of the conversation between Nadella and Klawe courtesy of The Anita Borg Institute:

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