The Business Times

Giving women what they really want at work

Published Thu, Oct 23, 2014 · 09:50 PM

NOT long after Satya Nadella took over the helm at software giant Microsoft in February this year, observers noted that he was bringing to the chief executive's office a management style that would be quite different from his two predecessors'.

While Steve Ballmer was flamboyant and given to wild gesticulations and yelling, and Bill Gates was known to be a confrontational and hard-driving taskmaster, the India-born engineer's approach is a rather more low-key and analytical style. Well, in his quiet, understated way, Mr Nadella certainly made waves - beyond the IT sector in America - two weeks ago when he told a US conference celebrating women in computing that women should not ask for pay raises but trust in "karma" to give them the salary they deserve. The women in the conference room in Phoenix, Arizona - and beyond, on social media and elsewhere - didn't quite keep their heads down but gave as good as they got. The firestorm of protests drew two rounds of apologies from the suitably chastened CEO - a Tweet followed by a statement soon after the remarks, and an internal memo to staff one week later acknowledging that Microsoft needed to do better in expanding the diversity of its staff across all ranks - and in ensuring equal pay. In a CNBC interview early this week, he was still fairly contrite about his gaffe, though he also asserted at an event in San Francisco on Monday that "men and women get paid equally at Microsoft" - a statement that analysts say is hard to verify as the company does not make public its pay structure. But according to anecdotal evidence from a very small sample of data by a job site, male Microsoft senior software development engineers earn around US$137,000 a year, compared with US$129,000 for women with that title. Across the country, data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics shows that men earn 24 per cent more, on average, than women in the technology sector.

Meanwhile, controversy is also brewing over a new staff perk at two big tech names that speaks, too, of the issues around women in the workplace. Apple said last week that it would offer female employees US$20,000 towards egg-freezing, following a similar initiative by Facebook since January. The companies say they're just giving staff what they want, and that the fertility benefit is just one in a generous package of healthcare perks. Of course what they're suggesting to their female staff is that, instead of making babies in their best childbearing years, they can postpone motherhood until "it's the right time career-wise" - i.e. when it's least disruptive to their job - never mind that the medical and scientific evidence say that the procedure isn't entirely harmless and its results aren't at all assured. And never mind if what some women really want is a workplace culture that's truly supportive of work-life balance, in terms of family-friendly perks for childcare, generous parental leave and flexible work schedules. While sponsored egg-freezing may indeed be welcomed as a boon by the more career-minded, and others are appalled about employers wading into such personal areas, the emergence of radical employee perks of late (by big, mostly American, names) also shows the lengths that companies go to these days to try and secure talent. And for the female staff of Facebook and Apple who take up their employers' egg-freezing perk - who would likely be well educated executives - the last thing they would stand for, one would think, is lower pay than their male colleagues for the same work.


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