• Ideas
  • Technology

An Open Letter to Satya Nadella: You Are the Industry. You Must Be the Change

5 minute read

Nilofer Merchant's high-tech business experience spans shipping 100 products, resulting in $18B in revenues. An author of two books on collaborative work, her next one is on how to make your ideas powerful enough to dent the world (Viking, 2016).

So Satya Nadella, your team stayed up all night trying to figure how to position this as a faux pas and not a tell. But I stayed up last night and thought about how you could turn this into a win.

Women shouldn’t ask for raises; instead, they should trust that “karma” will take care of them. A woman should have “faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” That’s what you, the CEO of Microsoft, said yesterday at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, a gathering focused on improving the pipeline of women entering the technology field. “Tone-deaf” and “ignorant” were common adjectives that met this pronouncement. And some outrage. (Loads of outrage, actually, often condensed to three letters on Twitter: WTF.)

You later apologized, saying you were “inarticulate” and that “the industry must close the gender pay gap.” I respect that you apologized and that you know at some level you messed up. But even your apology holds a fatal flaw. Your thinking should trouble us all.

First, the system you initially said women should “have faith” in is incredibly biased. The facts on this are irrefutable. Harvard research shows that women often face a choice of being perceived as either competent or likable (a problem men don’t face). Catalyst research shows that women are punished for being ambitious. Other research shows that men apply for jobs for which they have 60% of the stated qualifications while women demur unless they have 100%. So when you say “trust in the system,” what you are really doing is patting women on the head. And this causes outrage not because it offends women but because it reeks of patriarchy.

Your apology, however, encoded something even worse. You said on Twitter that “our industry must close the gender pay gap so a raise is not needed because of a bias.” Our industry. To which one has to start wondering, Who exactly is “our industry,” and how exactly would we know if “our industry” was working on the problem or ignoring it? We couldn’t. As any leader knows, until you have a throat to choke, you have nothing. I bet you don’t say, “I hope the industry fixes communications protocols.” You assign it to someone. Or you lay out how you will be involved in the solution. So in other words, when the truth is evident about how women are treated in tech, and the facts incontrovertible, you’re taking a pass on being a leader — on being part of the solution.

Satya Nadella, shame on you. You can do better.

Read and educate yourself. Lean In is by far the best-researched book on the state of women and leadership.

Then, and this is important: Take action. Yourself.

Bias is fixable. But (and this is a big but) only with conscious leadership. And that’s the bigger issue that your “faux pas” suggests. It’s about how power needs to be shared. While achieving wage equality is important, what is more important is creating a new normal in which women don’t have to live by the old rules created by men in the industrial era. Women — as well as a fair number of men — want to create rules and approaches that bring out the best in everyone. Women will not be able to undo debilitating, ingrained cultural biases on their own. And there’s no reason they should have to. And to be clear, this isn’t a “women’s” problem. This is an economic problem. You need the talent of all people — to bring that which only they can bring — to solve old problems with new ideas or to come up with entirely new solutions.

This is an opportunity for leadership, and so far, Mr. Nadella, you’re showing you’re not a leader. I’d like you to prove me wrong.

Here’s how you could do it: Instead of waiting for the industry to change (miraculously), why not be the change? Tomorrow, you re-level and compensate every woman on the same pay scale as your men. That would change the industry, and you have it within your powers to do it. It would redeem your stupidity yesterday. But more important, it would signal to the industry what leadership actually looks like. Stop taking about being an ally and actually be an ally.

Nilofer Merchant’s high-tech business experience spans shipping 100 products, resulting in $18 billion in revenue. An author of two books on collaborative work, her next one is on how to make your ideas powerful enough to dent the world (Viking, 2016).

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.