"Hard work is its own reward." "Patience is a virtue." "Good things come to those who wait."
As a young professional woman, I placed faith in those oft-repeated platitudes. Like many women, my natural inclination was to work hard, keep my head down, get the job done and wait to be recognized.
Luckily, I came to see that this approach got me nowhere. I became, by necessity, my own best advocate, asking for off-cycle raises when I felt I deserved them and could make a credible case. There wasn't one promotion during my career that I didn't ask for.
It wasn't easy to do. Every employee would rather have their bosses notice and reward their contributions than ask for recognition. And women, as a group, are less inclined than men to negotiate pay raises and promotions on their own behalf, which factors into the lack of pay equity in the United States.
But another big factor in salary discrimination is gender bias, which was on very public display during a recent conference for women in technology. A firestorm of criticism rained down on Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella after he advised attendees to avoid asking for raises earlier this month. Instead, he suggested women have "faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along."
The "good karma" that arises from not asking for more money would eventually pay off "because somebody's going to know that's the kind of person that I want to trust," Nadella said. "That's the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to."
One big flaw in this argument is that the system is rigged: the majority of the "somebodies" upon whom female workers must rely for more responsibility and pay also happen to be men.
This gender imbalance is particularly pervasive in finance and technology. As Twitter prepared for its initial public offering last year, media coverage revealed that its board and executive team included only one woman. Just a few weeks ago, Microsoft released an internal diversity study that showed that just 29% of the company's global workforce are women. And only three of the 100 bank holding companies in the U.S. with assets above $10 billion have female CEOs at the helm.
Women are clearly fighting barriers to entry in these male-dominated fields. Once they are in, women must not allow themselves to be discouraged from seeking promotions and pay raises. If we ever hope to close the pay gap and see women at the head of more than 5% of Fortune 500 companies, women need to ask for what they believe they deserve, and companies must change ingrained attitudes toward those who do so.
Men must also be involved in this process not least because, in the current system, they occupy many of the leadership positions charged with setting compensation policies. Through my work with the Financial Women's Association and its corporate partners, I've learned that transparency in the compensation and advancement process can go a long way toward closing the gender gap.
Microsoft's CEO may have inadvertently done women a favor by publicly illustrating the insidiousness of unconscious gender bias in the modern-day workplace. Not only did he disappoint his audience, he has acknowledged that he disappointed himself. Hopefully, he will now reexamine his thinking and become an advocate for change, and many more will follow his lead.
Maureen Adolf is president of Financial Women's Association and senior vice president of government relations at Nelson Brown & Co., a legal and consulting firm focused on insurance. She was previously corporate vice president and head of state government affairs & policy development at Prudential Financial.