SIAM News Blog

Maria Klawe’s Mighty Blow for Women

By Paul Davis

Few technological types missed the story of long-time SIAM member Maria Klawe’s pushback while interviewing Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last October at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. In response to Klawe’s query about women seeking raises, he replied, “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. . . . That, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have. Because that’s good karma.” To applause from the audience, Klawe parried, “This is one of the very few things I disagree with you on.”1

This confrontation didn’t seem to be a case of Davida besting Goliath or of telling truth to power. Although Harvey Mudd College, of which Klawe is president, and Microsoft Corporation are obviously quite different, Klawe and Nadella are both very, very good at what they do, are well respected among their peers, and evidently think well of one another (Klawe, for example, is a member of Microsoft’s board of directors).

Peers like these two could speak frankly and publicly to one another, especially in a setting like the Hopper conference. Nonetheless, most of the cheers from the sidelines after the encounter seemed to be for Klawe, despite Nadella’s speedy, public backpedalling from his karma comment before the day had ended.

Satya Nadella and Maria Klawe at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Photo courtesy of the Anita Borg Institute.
Had Klawe struck a mighty blow for women? She has written of her own failure to ask for a higher salary when negotiating to become dean of engineering at Princeton. Presumably taking a different tack, another female scientist, Rensselaer president Shirley Jackson, is reported to be the highest paid American university president by a wide margin. One suspects that her status was hardly a consequence of karma alone, even at its most forceful.

In a news interview following the Hopper conference, Klawe offered her own sympathetic interpretation of Nadella’s comments. After observing that they had been nearing the end of the 50-minute interview, she said, “He is such an amazing leader. He is very passionate about supporting women in tech careers. He had answered every other question and gotten applause and cheers from the audience. . . . Then I asked him that question and he gave that answer . . . I wanted to politely disagree because I . . . know it’s very important for leaders to expose their own failings—and I have lots of them!” She went on to recount her failed salary negotiations at Princeton.2 Was she pulling her own punches?

No. In fact, the boxing metaphor fails because the main event is not this notorious encounter. It is her entire career of encouraging women to enter and succeed in STEM fields, efforts that are mirrored in the work of other distinguished members of the SIAM community—for example, Richard Tapia—with other underrepresented groups.

Why is such encouragement needed? For us data-driven types in STEM fields —and even for those working in less obviously quantitative fields, such as classics and philosophy—the connections between expectations in our disciplines and underrepresentation were explored in a recent paper in Science (S.-J. Leslie, A. Cimpian, M. Meyer, and E. Freeland, “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines,” January 16, 2015, 347 (6219), 262–265).3 The authors’ bottom line is that belief in field-specific innate ability (“expectations of brilliance” in the paper’s title) among those who control the gates of graduate study and employment, as well as among those who seek entrance, is closely correlated with participation rates by gender and race. Men are well represented in fields in which innate ability is deemed important (e.g., mathematics and related fields), women in those in which effort is highly valued.  

In an editorial accompanying that article, Andrew Penner suggested, “Given how vital people think mathematical ability is for success in STEM fields, it will also be important to examine whether mathematical ability is viewed in particularly innate terms. If so, then we might expect fields in which mathematics is viewed as more central to have particularly low participation of women.”4 Could mathematicians’ feelings about the importance of innate ability affect more than just mathematics?

Instead of her personal feelings about “field-specific innate inability,” Klawe has written and spoken more colloquially of her feelings of being an impostor—“the frequent feeling of not deserving one’s success, and of being a failure despite a sustained record of achievements.” She had her first impostor’s experience as a grad student in the mid-70s when she attended a conference on the geometry of Banach spaces:  “I was convinced everyone could tell I didn’t belong.” The latest was barely a year ago, when she placed 17th on Fortune’s list of the “World’s Greatest Leaders” in recognition of Harvey Mudd’s success in having women constitute 40% of its computer science majors.5 

So maybe matters of gender and racial balance in our own profession of mathematics—no matter how broadly defined, it is still the gateway to much of science, technology, and engineering—are less about mighty blows than thoughtful self-examination of our own attitudes, followed by appropriate action. That seems to have been Nadella’s response to Klawe’s simple “I disagree.”

He retreated from what he called his “completely wrong” answer in a posting that evening on Microsoft’s News Center: “Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap. I believe men and women should get equal pay for equal work. And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it’s deserved, Maria’s advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.”

Of course, it’s not for nothing that women lag behind men in both pay and numbers in many places within reach of SIAM, from Silicon Valley to the ivory tower. Are we mathematicians, regardless of stripe, allowing a myth of innate ability to bar capable, hard-working women from our profession? Is the same happening with other minorities?

How many smart people do you remember from grad school who never quite clicked mathematically over the long term? How many in our profession have made valuable contributions even though they weren’t too high on anyone’s league table of innate ability? Who helped you and why, even if you are an impostor (secretly, of course), certain that you lack innate ability? Whom have you encouraged lately—and why?

And if you are still sure that brilliance alone defines professional mathematicians, consider the question Penner poses at the close of his Science editorial,4 “Perhaps it is time to ask a new question about gender representation in STEM: Would society be better off if men were more like women?” 

1 N. Wingfield, Microsoft Chief Sets Off a Furor on Women’s Pay, The New York Times, October 9, 2014. 
Maria  Klawe: “Surprised” by Microsoft CEO’s comments about women’s raises, video of interview by Bloomberg WEST;
3 Summarized in The Economist, January 17–23, 2015, 74–75; Some online comments from women readers of The Economist summary offer anecdotal reinforcement of the findings of Leslie et al. A number of the comments (presumably from men) are genuinely disturbing.
A.M. Penner, Gender inequality in science, Science, January 16,  2015, 347 (6219),  234–235.
5 M. Klawe, Impostoritis: A lifelong, but treatable, condition, Slate, March 24, 2014;

Paul Davis is Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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