Ex-Microsoft Director Says She Was Asked to Resign After Nadella Gaffe | #education | #technology | #training

  • Former Microsoft director Maria Klawe told Insider she was asked to resign from Microsoft’s board.
  • She disagreed with Nadella at a 2014 conference when he said women should rely on karma for raises.
  • She resigned quietly at the time, but now says she felt “silenced.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In October 2014, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took the stage at the Grace Hopper Celebration, a prominent conference for women in tech, for an onstage conversation with Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College and a Microsoft board member.

It was there that Nadella made his biggest gaffe to date. He told the 8,000 conference attendees that women should rely on “faith” in the system and “good karma” to get pay raises, rather than asking bosses for what they deserve. Klawe, the moderator, pushed back, saying women should do their research and negotiate for raises — to cheers from the audience.

After backlash, Nadella apologized and said Klawe was right. He used the incident as the impetus for a series of diversity initiatives at Microsoft.

But behind the scenes, Klawe told Insider, the company’s board was unhappy with how Nadella’s comments made Microsoft look. Klawe says Microsoft chairman John Thompson blamed her for putting Nadella in that situation, and asked her to step down from the board. In October 2015, Microsoft announced Klawe decided not to seek re-election after six years on the board.

“I felt like I was being silenced,” Klawe told Insider. “I was just disappointed Satya Nadella would let that happen.” She also says that Nadella was given the questions for the interview a month in advance and should not have been surprised by the conversation. 

“We appreciate the contributions that Maria Klawe made as a board member,” Microsoft’s spokesperson said in a statement to Insider. “Microsoft is committed to maintaining a board with diverse backgrounds and experiences that matches the evolution of the company. We continue to push ourselves to build more diverse and inclusive teams at all levels and our Senior Leadership Team meets regularly to understand what’s working and where our efforts need refinement.”

“Specific to our board composition, more than 63% of board members represent gender, ethnic, geographic, or cultural diversity and 45% of board members are women, making Microsoft’s board of directors one of the most diverse of any company in technology today,” the spokesperson said.

Klawe believes the gaffe led to positive change at Microsoft 

Klawe believes that Nadella’s gaffe at the conference led to positive changes for women at Microsoft and the tech industry at large. Nadella wrote about the event in his book “Hit Refresh,” saying he was glad he “messed up in such a public forum because it helped me confront an unconscious bias that I didn’t know I had, and it helped me find a new sense of empathy for the great women in my life and at my company.”

Klawe says she believes that Nadella’s response proved his leadership acumen in that he is willing to learn from the experience and make positive changes. At the same time that Microsoft announced Klawe’s departure, the company also named prominent women executives Sandi Peterson and Padmasree Warrior to its board.

“Satya acknowledged he made a mistake and said, ‘If I could blow a question like that, I bet I’m not the only one’ and started a training at Microsoft that marked a really dramatic turnaround,” she said.

Klawe believes Bill Gates didn’t care about diversity at Microsoft

Klawe believes that Nadella’s efforts to improve diversity and inclusion at Microsoft would never have happened if cofounder Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates were still in charge. She said Gates, who was on Microsoft’s board until 2020, was not receptive to suggestions from women board members about improving diversity in succession planning.

“I would just say that is not something [Gates] was interested in hearing about, and [he] made it very clear by saying things like: ‘Are you trying to effing destroy the company?’ The message was: Caring about diversity has nothing to do with the success of Microsoft.”

Klawe’s comments come as Bill Gates’ personal life comes under scrutiny amid his high-profile divorce from his wife Melinda Gates. Gates is said to have stepped down from the board of the company he helped found amid an investigation into a relationship with a Microsoft employee, and his ties to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein have come under the microscope as well.

“It is a gross mischaracterization to suggest that Mr. Gates lacked interest in speaking about or promoting diversity and inclusion at Microsoft,” A spokesperson for Gates said in an email to Insider.

“Microsoft has a long track record of working to not only fight discrimination in the workplace, but to expand access to technology and technology education in underserved communities. This is work that Mr. Gates has supported both publicly and privately for years. His understanding of the disparities that exist in the US and around the world have also formed the basis for his more than two decades of work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose mission is to help create a world where every person has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.”

In 2018, Microsoft hired a chief diversity officer and now publishes an annual diversity and inclusion report, detailing the company’s steps to make a more equitable workplace. Microsoft said two of its four board committee are chaired by women, diversity and inclusion are topics at virtually every board and senior leadership team meeting, and since 2016 it has included progress and diversity and inclusion representation as a component in annual incentives for the company’s senior leadership team.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would still join the board and I would still correct [Nadella] when he answered the question wrong,” Klawe said. “I think it had a hugely positive impact on companies in general and Microsoft itself. Even knowing what was going to happen as a result, it was the right thing to do.”

Do you work at Microsoft or have insight to share? Contact reporter Ashley Stewart via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-425-344-8242) or email (astewart@businessinsider.com).

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