I sat stiff in my swivel chair, the new salary I wanted drumming in my head. When he started talking about the company’s budget, I thought of the compensation research I had done with my husband, the role playing I did with my business-savvy friend.
I gave a number, we shook hands and when I left the room, I wanted to vanish. I had asked for half the raise I wanted, and I knew why. When the moment came, I didn’t want to be paid what I was worth. I wanted the out-of-town executive — whom I would never see again — to like me.
I used to hide this story as one of the most shameful personal failures of my career. Then I joined the tech industry, where women were creating spaces to tell each other their own versions of the same story — over and over again — with a candor that could only be aimed at making sure no one has to tell it again.
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When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told a conference of women Thursday that they should put trust in company systems and good karma rather than ask for raises themselves, he spoke past a problem women know so intimately, from so many tender angles, that it strained belief to hear it dismissed by anyone, let alone the head of one of the most influential tech companies in the world.
Nadella took back his remarks in a public email to more than 120,000 employees — 29 percent of them women — that didn’t fool around. “I answered that question completely wrong,” he wrote.
But his words already had presented their crisis.
You can’t swipe through a local tech calendar without landing on some event about how women and people of color can better advocate for themselves, with their employers’ increasing support. That’s how eager this industry is to reconcile its progressive image with its dismal diversity.
Yet a top CEO suggested employers place their trust in employees who do not self-advocate. At a supersized version of one of these very events, no less.
What, exactly, are we who want tech to be as forward-thinking on the inside as it is on the outside supposed to make of that?
There isn’t a bright side to everything, but three aspects of how all this went down actually encourage me.
One: Within hours, Nadella’s remarks went national. Not just tech national, but “Good Morning America” national. There could only be one explanation: Everyone found them controversial. Not just women. Not just tech employees. Everyone.
Two: Nadella’s retraction was fast, far-reaching and made no attempt to defend any part of what he said. That’s a pretty clear sign it was so indefensible, and its damage so serious, even Microsoft knew no amount of PR maneuvering was going to be worth it.
There’s no better way to take our collective pulse on an issue than to hear news and share our reaction.
Which brings me to my third point. Adding up the stories, the retraction and the broad, ongoing response, Nadella’s awful advice is already doing more to boost the modern conversation about diversity in the workplace than any other incident in at least the past couple of years.
“The number of men that I’ve seen commenting on various articles about it, with sentiments typically only voiced by women … might be the most encouraging thing I’ve seen out of this whole fiasco,” tech marketer Briana Saunders told me via Facebook.
I’ve learned some things since that disastrous meeting several years ago. And I’ve made up for it in rate negotiations that, in some cases, got me compensation I was nowhere near sure I could get.
But I couldn’t have found that confidence if I had stayed quiet, or if others had.
Nadella dropped the mic. We might as well pick it up.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.