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Real advice from women in tech on getting promoted

Funny, no one mentioned karma. 


Molly McHugh


Posted on Oct 11, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 10:30 am CDT

At a conference this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was asked how women in technical fields should approach asking for raises. It’s well-known that women don’t request raises or promotions as often as men do (though some research says that, in fact, they do, but these requests are simply not met with as great of rewards as when they come from men).

As the CEO of a major tech company, one that recently revealed its diversity report, Nadella had an opportunity to offer real, concrete advice. Advice that, by all accounts, women need. He is, after all, someone who would hear such requests for raises and responsibilities.

Instead, he inferred that women shouldn’t ask. They should “[know and have] faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” Unfortunately, that faith was broken a long time ago, or never existed. That system is the same one that has resulted in Microsoft’s workforce being 71 percent male

Nadella has been quick to back-pedal, but his reworded response (that there shouldn’t even be a gender pay gap that we have to deal with) fails to offer any actual advice. I want to know, as a woman, how to walk into Satya Nadella’s office, or anyone else’s, and ask for a raise. Give me real, specific advice. Don’t sugar-coat anything, don’t tell me you wish that I didn’t even have to think about the fact that men receive more and larger raises. Don’t tell me we “must close the gender pay gap,” because we will never live in a world without gender bias. That sounds lovely, but it’s not the reality. And even if it someday is, it certainly isn’t now.

So because Nadella wouldn’t offer a real answer, we will. We talked to a number of women in tech, tech-related, or science fields and have some actual advice on climbing the corporate ladders. Some asked we not provide their full names and job titles.

The words are theirs, emphasis added ours.


Only after fighting for myself by demanding to be compensated for additional responsibilities did the “system” relent. I’ve also had to fight for my female employees. It isn’t easy, or fun, but I’ve come to realize being appropriately compensated for your skills is well worth whatever uncomfortable feelings I have during the process. I’m not hurting anyone’s feelings when I fight to be fairly paid, as the “system” doesn’t have feelings. “Good karma” doesn’t come from not asking for something, as Nadella says. It comes from being a happy and productive employee, who doesn’t resent the company she works for.

I’ve been really lucky as far as support from my superiors, but that’s because they’re tough old bitches training me to be a tough old bitch, too. ;P

—Tiffany, trauma research manager at a level 1 trauma center in Texas


My advice: Ask for a raise and then act like you’re doing them a favor for accepting less than you’re worth if you don’t get it. Because you are.

Gina Trapani, cofounder of ThinkUp, founder of Lifehacker 


What makes me sad about Nadella’s comments is that it’s exactly that type of attitude that discourages women workers in general. Study after study shows that one reason the wage gap exists is because women ask for raises less often than men; doesn’t that show we’ve tried to have faith in the system? We had faith in the system—the system failed us.

I’ve delayed asking for raises for months on end, stretching into a year or more, because I was relying on karma. I worked long hours, nights, and weekends. The raise never came. I had a female mentor who reminded me weekly to ask, and I’ll always follow her advice from now on. You have to ask, you have to demand to be compensated, demand to be noticed, because men (who overwhelmingly dominate women in tech and media managerial roles) are happy to keep their boys’ club. It’s what they know and it’s what’s comfortable. But success in the workplace is not karma. It’s hard work and getting your hard work noticed.

Versha Sharma, senior editorial producer, NowThisNews


The one phrase I tell myself when [in] conflict or intimidating situations (asking for raise/salary info, confrontations, etc.) is “a man would ask.” It’s kinda Lean In–ish, but when I feel anxious about the situation at hand, I need something to convince myself it’s not a big deal. It’s really not, usually.

My other suggestion is simply to make strong bonds with other women in the office, particularly those above you in payscale and experienceI’ve seen female mentors advocate for me and their input has a bit more weight with the people directing me. They can kind of serve as translators between me, the frustrated one, and the male execs, who sometimes just don’t understand how to support or mentor a woman in the workplace. My in-office relationships with women have proved invaluable.

Lastly, the one factor that is so often out of our control is getting lucky enough to have a good boss. I know that’s kind of a shitty cop-out in a male-dominated industry with limited jobs, so I’d just suggest aggressively pursuing companies, departments, and paths that value and employ a diverse staff. My current boss is a straight man, but his wife is a big-name marketing executive at another major media company, so he has seen first-hand the hurdles women must pass. Plus, an existing structure of women and minorities in managerial, etc. roles bodes well for the company’s ability to grow and promote employees who are not just straight men. Why it’s such a challenge for so many places, who knows.

Lindsey Adler, writer, Vice


Many women I know, myself included, tend to be more prone to suffering from impostor syndrome and letting that guide their interactions in the workplace. My advice is to ignore that little voice in your head, be assertive and firm, and negotiate the hell out of that salary or raise or other job perks. There’s no such thing as karma when it comes to work compensation, and any company worth working for won’t penalize you for asking, even if the answer is “no.” 

Anna Lear, software developer at StackExchange


I think there’s a tendency—especially in male-dominated fields—for women to shy away from questioning our salaries because we already consciously or subconsciously feel like we “got admitted to the clubhouse” and don’t want to rock the boat. It’s also still a tough economy and a lot of people of any gender are worried about jeopardizing whatever earning ability they currently have. But for a host of reasons—our own career progress, working to close the gender pay gap, and feeling overall job satisfaction—it’s incredibly helpful to get an accurate perspective on how much your contributions are being valued versus similar roles both within your current company and your industry as a whole.

There are many resources out there to help assess whether you’re being paid what you should be based on various factors like your role, experience level, education level, industry, location, and even equivalent positions within your own company (Glassdoor,, etc.). Enlist the help of mentors and close cohorts within your industry to gather additional salary range feedback, as well as tips for how to ask for more when you think you deserve it. Also, it’s politically frowned upon but not illegal to discuss salary with your coworkers—and if you feel comfortable broaching the subject, the law is on your side (if you’re worried about being fired for doing so, your courage may be bolstered by the relative strength of workplace retaliation laws).

Think of your HR department (if your company has one) as a resource too—you can arm yourself with information around general compensation policy, what factors contribute to salary increase and bonus processes, salary ranges within the company, and how acquiring new skills while in your role (via company training programs, online/offline coursework, degree or certification programs, volunteer work, etc.) could factor into warranting additional salary. And especially if you’ve taken on significant additional responsibilities in your current gig without an accompanying pay bump—it might be a good time to think about broaching the subject of additional compensation, or even promotion. The annual or semi-annual review process (if your company has one) is a great neutral time to discuss these topics with your manager, but don’t be shy about introducing the subject outside of that if you discover potential discrepancies around what you should be making, or even to proactively ask your boss what milestones, skills, and achievements are important to your continued growth within the company.

Barb Dybwad, director of business development, AOL Tech


I think the biological sciences are very different from tech in that women are much better represented, at least at the lower levels. About two-thirds of my graduate school classmates were women. The presence of women certainly goes down among the senior scientists, where you get into the issues of the unequal disadvantage women are put at when trying to have both a family and a highly demanding job—something plenty of men seem to be able to do no problem.  For myself, I have sought out women mentors who have made it to these higher roles to learn from them and give myself examples of how it can be done. Also, when I was looking for my current position, I made sure I was joining a group that would be supportive if I were to be starting a family.  When I was interviewing with my current lab and found out many of the people here have small kids and that the work environment was supportive of that, I took it as a very good sign. That was definitely not the case at another lab I interviewed with, where I got the sense that having a child would be an indication of a lack of dedication to your work.  

—Ashley, a postdoctoral fellow at a major pharmaceutical company


[Nadella] mentioned “The real issue is to figure out how to get women into the organization, and especially, in our case, into our development.” To me, this is the go-to answer all the tech CEOs want to talk about: all the things they are doing to get women into the industry. This is good and all, but you never hear about the issues once these women are hired […] It seems like most of these CEOs just don’t want to admit to themselves that their system is not perfect and there needs to be some constructive changes and real discussion around tech workplace culture.

Which is why trusting the system is literally the worst advice ever! The system is flawed and the women that are in tech are creative problem-solving all the time in leadership roles, pushing the boundaries of said system, leading the way for other women in an industry that turns a blind eye to its flaws. I’m not saying the system in place in most tech companies is horrible, but they just don’t get it. Like Satya Nadella, they are out of touch to what the actual workplace issues are and there is not enough open discussion happening.

My advice would be the opposite [of Nadella’s]: Know your self worth and don’t be afraid to go ask for a raise or negotiate salaryIf that company fires or punishes you for asking for something reasonable and what you believe you are worth, then they are not the place for you. Move on, there are a lot of tech companies and startups that would love to have you. I think that advice goes the same for just working every day: Stand up for your ideas, take in criticism, and draw your own conclusions.

I feel like in the tech industry and at most workplaces, some people tend to make assumptions about you based on their own bias, whether that be gender, race, sexual orientation, or disability-related. In these situations, I like to remind myself that they hired me for a reason and that I’m going to share my ideas even if that one person hates every one of them. If it ends up being a bad idea, then hey, you lose some you win some. If it ends up being a great idea, it may have just changed that person’s opinion about you, or maybe not. But who cares, your idea was awesome, high five!

—Marisa Tovar, UX Designer, YouTube


Some research that’s made a big impression on me recently was a report published in Fortune about the stark contrasts between men’s versus women’s performance reviews. It showed women are not only criticized within reviews much more often than men, it also showed women’s personality characteristics are criticized far and away more than men (about  two percent of men versus about 75 percent of women).

This just demonstrates the importance for leaders to continue challenging their biases and educating themselves on diversity issues throughout their careers.

—Jennifer, an employee at a San Francisco technology company


The number of women in technology falls each year because CEOs like Mr. Nadella allow a culture hostile to gender equality to not only exist but to thrive. But by asking women to trust the very system that has consistently failed them, the light has never shown brighter on issues facing female technologists. So I’d like to thank Mr. Nadella for his archaic remarks—and I look forward to his many retractions that, like Microsoft’s endless security patches, will seek to make us forget that he got it wrong the first time around.

Suki Dunham, CEO, OhMiBod


As a professional, I’ve worked at both male and female-dominated companies. As a woman in the tech industry, I’ve worked to create performance structures and influence culture under both male and female supervisors. It’s not about gender; it’s about mindset. What I’m getting at is, in addition to the opportunities the tech space offers to find companies that aren’t chained to exisiting systems and behavior, every employee is responsible to the company’s financial bottom line and to its culture. Especially those of us currently in management. Ask yourself: As you advance in your career, how will you help hold the door open for those following behind you?

Avia Bushyhead, client development, NTENT


Photo via uoeducation/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 11, 2014, 12:26 pm CDT