More Episodes of Clueless in Silicon Valley:  What does the reaction say about us?

By Supreeta Sampath

The spotlight shined again this month on employer cluelessness in Silicon Valley, first with Microsoft’s new CEO telling women they’re better off waiting for karma than pushing for raises and then with the news that one multi-million dollar tech company was paying workers in Rupees.

Early this month came the disturbing comment about women and pay raises by Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, speaking (ironically) at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference.  Nadella’s mind-boggling advice to young women seeking advice on how to ask for a raise was to keep quiet – “knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raises as you go along.”  He further opined that it’s “good karma” not to ask for a raise.  Immediately after the talk, Nadella recanted in a tweet –

Nadella tweet

That same day he issued a letter of apology to Microsoft workers telling them if they think they deserve a raise, just ask.

Then last week, EFI, a publicly-traded digital technology company was caught by the U.S. Department of Labor paying eight employees in Rupees.  That’s right, Rupees, the currency of India.  Apparently, the Fremont-based multi-million-dollar company believed that because it had flown the Indian employees from India to California for a project, it was allowed to pay the employees in Rupees, at a rate equivalent to $1.21 per hour and make them work 120 hours per week.  The consequence for this travesty?  Other than paying $40,000 in wages owed, EFI was fined a mere $3,500 by the DOL. What was the company’s response?  Let’s just say there were no apologies, simply feigned ignorance of the law.

The reaction to these events reveals a ‘sign of the times’ and the power of media to focus (or not) on work place equality.

The public and media decry of Nadella’s comments are ubiquitous.  If one types in any combination of “Nadella”, “Pay” and “Women” into any search engine, the results are prolific. Ranging from tweets of dismay and disgust, to thoughtful editorial pieces criticizing Nadella in major news magazines, the country passionately leaped into its discussion about gender equality in the work place. Perhaps most notable is the equal abundance of pieces (including in the New York Times) spinning Nadella’s blunder into a positive and needed opportunity to continue discussions about the gender divide.

In stark contrast to the national reaction over the Nadella debacle, you will be hard pressed to find any significant media coverage over EFI’s unlawful conduct.  Media attention was short-lived and confined to local stations.  I found only one article condemning the behavior and guffawing at the paltry DOL fine.  So where are the bloggers, tweeters and national media commentators decrying wage theft and worker exploitation?  Why is there a lack of any meaningful response expressing shame and disgust over this blatant example of corporate greed? And has anyone asked whether EFI would have paid British workers in Pounds (with a $1.61 exchange rate) if they had been slogging away in California for the company?  Why is no one furious that a company reporting close to $200 million in revenue in its last financial quarter got away with a $3500 fine?

Perhaps with recent political victories like the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Cheryl Sanberg exhorting women to “Lean In” – it is more socially acceptable and sexy to debate the merits of fair pay and gender equality in the work place than to focus on the unrelenting reality of labor exploitation.  Perhaps Microsoft is cleverer and has a better Communications Department assisting in rehabilitating Nadella and Microsoft’s reputation through widespread “positive spin” pieces?  Perhaps it is all of this.

Don’t get me wrong, as a woman and a workers’ rights advocate, I am thrilled that Nadella’s comments have put needed attention on pay and gender equality in the workplace.  But as a woman and worker’s rights advocate, it’s clear to me that the bigger lesson can be learned from the different ways these two employer “mishaps” have been reported by the media and digested by the masses.

Minimum wage, wage theft and worker exploitation may not be as alluring as gender equality in the year 2014, but they are equally vital to our national economy and collective moral conscience.

 

Supreeta Sampath

About Supreeta Sampath

Supreeta Sampath is the founder of The Sampath Law Firm located in San Francisco, California. For over a decade, her legal career has been dedicated to serving the needs of those who have been denied justice. Ms. Sampath has extensive experience representing workers in employment discrimination cases on account of race, national origin, religion, gender, disability, age, sexual harassment, retaliation as well as cases involving labor code violations. From 2011-2014 she has been named a Rising Star in the field of Labor and Employment by Super Lawyers Magazine.

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