Thinking before you speak is generally accepted as best practice, particularly if you are speaking in front of a room full of members of the world’s media. Unfortunately Microsoft boss Satya Nadella recently failed to adopt this approach when addressing the question of what advice he would offer women who are not comfortable asking for pay increases. At a conference held to celebrate women in technology (no one can accuse him of not picking his moment), Nadella responded: “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along”. I’m sure that Nadella couldn’t have been suggesting that the system in its current position is giving women ‘the right raises’ when some statistics show that women are still paid 35 per cent less than men on average and when it comes to management, 25 per cent less than male counterparts.   

Nadella went on to clarify his response by explaining that women should not ask for pay rises “because that’s good karma”. He dug a little further by stating that it would “come back because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person that I want to trust“. Is Nadella, boss of one of the most well-known companies worldwide, really indicating that asking for a pay rise that you potentially deserve would send the message to your superiors that you are less trustworthy than the woman who sits quietly and never asks for more than she is already gratefully receiving?   

Of course the interviewer at the event, Maria Klawe, a Microsoft director, instantly disagreed with these comments and Nadella later apologised for them via his twitter account claiming that he was ‘inarticulate’ in answering the question and that he would “wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap”. At the risk of sounding like a game-show host, however, I am going to have to take your first answer, Mr Nadella. The original response to the question gives a frightening insight into his views on the equal pay subject and no doubt the views of other bosses, both male and female. I have no doubt that most bosses would rather their employees didn’t ask for raises.  However men are more likely to ask for that raise and by not encouraging (indeed, actively discouraging) women to do the same, the gap is unlikely ever to be closed.  [By the way, “inarticulacy” now ranks on a par with the terrific “mis-speaking” as the fashionable euphemism for having said something either mildly dishonest or incredibly foolish.  In neither case will an Employment Tribunal give it any material air-time as a defence.]  

The Equality Act 2010 allows employees to compare any terms in their contract of employment with the equivalent terms in a comparator’s contract, a comparator for these purposes being an employee of the opposite sex working for the same employer, doing like work of equal value.  The employer must then show the reason for the difference is due to a genuine factor and not based on the sex of the employee. Probably not so easy if you’ve just told women not to ask for pay rises at a conference specifically to celebrate their involvement in the industry. And if Microsoft were to lose an equal pay claim at Tribunal, things could get even more embarrassing as from 1st October 2014 employers who lose equal pay claims in the UK can be forced to conduct an equal pay audit and publish the results.