In “Knowing Your Value,” best-selling author and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski reflects on her own mistakes at the negotiating table and takes an in-depth look at how women today achieve their deserved recognition and financial worth. Read an excerpt:
Introduction: Success and Failure, All at Once
Joe Scarborough sat across from me in the windowed café at the bottom of Rockefeller Center. Outside, the rink was filled with bundled-up skaters enjoying the winter chill. Joe and I, along with the rest of the “Morning Joe” staff, had just returned from a grueling three-week cross-country trek covering the historic 2008 presidential primaries. It was an exhilarating time to be working on a political talk show.
After months of hard work, “Morning Joe” was becoming the place for candidates to be seen and heard. The buzz was growing, our ratings were improving, and the show was making news. We should have been ecstatic. Instead Joe sat silently and listened as I explained why I needed to resign.
It was a painful decision. But after nearly twenty years of scrambling up, down, and back up the television-news ladder several times over, I was done. I was demoralized—and not because I didn’t like my job. In fact, I loved it. No other show I’d ever worked on had such energy and so much excitement. But as I explained to Joe on that sad, cold winter morning, I could no longer work for a network that refused to recognize my value. It may have taken me forty years, but I’d finally realized it was time to do things right or not at all.
Despite my professional experience, the fifteen-hour workdays, and a successful new show that I had helped build, msnbc was still refusing to pay me what I was worth. Not only was my salary lower than my colleagues’, each month was a financial scramble to make ends meet. After child care, on-air wardrobe, makeup, travel, and the other ridiculous expenses that women in this business end up taking on, the job was actually costing me more than I was being paid. Checks were bouncing, and worse, I could barely face myself in the mirror when I thought of the example I was setting for my twelve- and fourteen-year-old daughters. Every morning I sat with a group of male colleagues, all of whom made much more than I did. In fact, our salaries weren’t even close.
Let me be clear: there is no question that Joe was worth more to the show’s success than anyone. But was he really fourteen times more valuable than me?
To be fair, Joe and I started out at “Morning Joe” on very different footing. The show was Joe’s creation, and his sheer determination got it on the air. He had been hosting his own prime time talk show at the network, and his salary was on par with other prime time hosts. msnbc was in the middle of a massive financial restructuring, making difficult staff cuts in an effort to keep the network productive during tough times.
When Joe recruited me as his co-host, I had been doing a low-level, part-time job at msnbc, just to get back in the game after losing my anchor position at “CBS Evening News” the year before. I had worked my tail off to help “Morning Joe” become the success it was, and my career was again on the upswing — so really, why was I jeopardizing it? Because I was not getting paid my value. And because ultimately I had only myself to blame.
I sat across from Joe over breakfast to tell him that I had reached the breaking point. I owed it to Joe to tell him in person and to thank him for his heroic efforts to revive my career. But the inequity was killing me, and I believed it would ultimately poison the show. I was ready to walk away.
Before I could finish, he said, “No, you can’t leave.”
Joe knew I wasn’t being paid what I was worth and had been fighting for me all along, but so far his efforts had been in vain. He asked for a few more days. As always, Joe had a plan.
The former congressman knew we had created something that was unlike anything else on television; how the on-air chemistry among Joe, myself, and Willie Geist was just right; how our lively debates were making waves and grabbing the attention of policy makers, politicians, and the media. Joe knew that as much as anyone, I was responsible for our on-air success. He had told anyone who would listen that his vision for his new show would succeed only if I were his co-host. He was as angry at the NBC brass as I was. But what made matters worse was that I — me, myself — was to blame for this. I had allowed this to happen. I had asked repeatedly for a raise, but I had repeatedly been denied. The truth is, like most women, I didn’t know my value, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known how to get it.
Looking back, I realize that every time I sat at the negotiating table, my greatest enemy was myself. The words I chose and the strategies I put in play actually undermined my goals. No manager and no network executive was responsible for my plight. The failure to effectively communicate rested solely on me, every time.
My meeting with Joe that February morning was the culmination of a problem that had been brewing for decades. I had spent my career moving from job to job, accepting pay that I knew wasn’t competitive because I always felt lucky to be there. I figured if I just worked hard, took on more hours, more assignments, and more stories, I could prove myself, and eventually my bosses would reward me with a raise and promotion. Often while I was hustling and hoping for more money, I would discover that my male colleagues were making more than I was. I wouldn’t get angry at the men for this — I’d be angry at myself for not earning more respect (and compensation) from management. Then I’d start feeling underappreciated, talk to other networks, and then move on and repeat the pattern somewhere else. Clearly the pattern wasn’t getting me anywhere.
Why was I continually underpaid and undervalued? Was it because I was a woman? No. There are women in this business who rake in huge salaries. Like me, they are commodities. But these women know their value, and they get it. So what were they doing that I wasn’t?
I had spent months watching Joe get what he wanted from management with ease and determination. I, too, was capable of doing great things for the show, but when it came to fighting for myself, I always struck out. I began asking myself whether I was the biggest idiot on the face of the earth. Here I was, playing the role of a strong, successful woman on the set who takes on the political hotshots and keeps the guys in check. And yet my salary was where it might have been fifteen years ago, or twenty years ago. This wasn’t where I should have been at my age and level of experience.
I started to think about what was keeping me back, and what was keeping all women back. I kept seeing headlines about how far women have come. They have broken glass ceilings. Hillary Clinton has run for president. And yet women’s salaries still don’t equal men’s salaries — women everywhere still make less.
I thought to myself, “Is it possible? Is it possible that I’m not alone? Have other successful women had some of the same problems? Or am I alone?” I started talking to the incredibly impressive women on the set, and they all told me, “Oh, no, no. You’re not alone.” One of these women actually came to me for advice when she was changing jobs, and I realized she was doing the same thing I was. Undermining herself. Undercutting herself. Undervaluing herself.
And then about a year ago, on a beautiful spring day, I was in the White House and dropped by presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett’s office to say hello. We started talking about work-life balance. We discussed the excitement and challenges of having so many opportunities as women. For Valerie, the challenges were raising an incredible daughter on her own, navigating the worlds of business and politics at the top level, and helping to propel the first African-American president into office. For me, they were trying to maintain a marriage, raising two extraordinary girls while traveling the country, and covering the Obama presidency.
We marveled at all that was possible but also commiserated about the cost of our choices. The sacrifice. The determination that meeting our challenges required. I had just written a memoir, and I mentioned that I had an idea for another book, but I didn’t think my schedule would allow me to write it. I wasn’t getting enough time with my family. I could barely do any of my jobs well. I was wavering about whether this was a project I should throw myself into.
She asked what the concept was, and as I described to her my theories about women and value, I realized immediately I’d hit a nerve. She said, “You have to write this book. This is important. This is the next part of the conversation. Even more, this book is in you. You have to write it. It’s so important.” And then she proceeded to tell me about the White House Council on Women and Girls, and its efforts for National Equal Pay Day, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and all the studies they had underway. She told me the administration had people at every level dealing with women’s issues, whether it be access to capital or the gender wage gap. Valerie not only urged me to write the book, she said, “I’ll help you. What can I do? We’ve gotten really far. Women run the world. But we’re not getting our value.”
She was an inspiration to me and a catalyst for this project. What really was just a casual visit had taken a dramatic turn, and I walked out of her office knowing I was going to write this book. I realized that if my story spoke to Valerie, then certainly it would speak to others.
Luckily, “Morning Joe” is a place where power players come to be a part of the national conversation. So I didn’t have to go too far to find successful women who were willing to be interviewed on the subject of knowing their value. I spoke with influential women in government such as Brooksley Born, Sheila Bair, and Elizabeth Warren; personal-finance ex- pert Suze Orman; media entrepreneurs Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown; women’s magazine leaders like More magazine’s Lesley Jane Seymour and Cosmopolitan’s Kate White. I interviewed Nora Ephron, Joy Behar, and Susie Essman. I spoke to top researchers on the subject of gender and negotiation, such as Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowles. For the male perspective, I asked the likes of Donald Trump, Jack Welch, and Donny Deutsch to weigh in. Some of the interviewees had been on the show; some, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, I thought should be on the show.
The women I interviewed manage multibillion-dollar companies, run our government, and oversee our economy. These are women who deal day to day with challenges of national importance, yet I was struck by how similar our psychology was as we shared our experiences in the workplace. I assumed such successful women must somehow have been smarter about their careers and their money. They must have taken a different road — we couldn’t possibly have made similar mistakes. But as I began sharing my struggles with women in a variety of fields, many of them told me of their own troubled efforts to get a raise, earn a promotion, or just to have their ideas heard in the conference room. Why are things that seem to be simple for many men so difficult for many women? Why do we undermine ourselves, often right from the start?
There are lessons to be learned from my experience, and from the experiences of a number of far more successful women I spoke with when writing this book.
How have they managed to be compensated for their true value? What have they done wrong, and what have they done right? Their answers were surprisingly honest and unexpectedly revealing Apparently none of them played the game exactly the way the men did. Among other things, they taught me some important lessons about getting out of my own way, learning to speak up, negotiating from a place of power instead of fear, owning my success, and perhaps most important, getting the compensation I deserve.
After all, there’s money to be made in these lessons. And the lessons apply to everything in life. Money, in this book, is simply a metaphor. This is about being valued in the way you should be at work or anywhere. Every lesson that you will read about in this book can apply to relationships, raising children, marriage, being in a profession, being in an industry, changing jobs … everything. Because if you don’t demand what you’re worth and if you don’t communicate it well, you won’t be treated fairly, and the relationship will ultimately die. And if you don’t ask for what you deserve, you won’t ever find out what you’re made of, and what you truly can do. You undermine yourself by not developing your tools and learning what to do with them and what not to do with them; how to use your voice, your brain, your words, your style, your approach, your finesse, everything in your power to get your value.
It’s okay to say what you want and what you need. Because if you want a relationship to work, you’ve got to get what you want and what you need. If you don’t, you’re giving, giving, giving, and you end up with nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Ultimately, msnbc showed me the money. I got a significant raise, but not in the way I would ever have anticipated. Mine truly was an unconventional path, and I advise you not to walk it yourself. I’ll tell you more about my experience later in the book.
To its credit, msnbc not only made good, but it has taken up the cause. After I got this book contract I went to our boss, Phil Griffin — one of the stars in this book and the man who passed on giving me a raise until I was able to effectively communicate my value. I said to him, “Listen, I’ve got a book deal. I’m going to write about knowing my value, and I’m going to write about the mistakes I’ve made. And I want to write about mistakes I’ve made with you.” He thought about it for less than a second and said, “Absolutely.”
Then Phil raised the bar and suggested we go further. We started talking about ways we could feature the issue on the show, and msnbc even did an online survey to provide research for the book (for details on methodology, see the copyright page). Even after reading the manuscript of this book, Phil has been on board as my biggest cheerleader. He knows a story that will resonate and, yes, sell. After all, the issue of equal pay, the gender wage gap, knowing your value — these are perennially important issues that affect women everywhere. And in the current “man-cession,” as men are losing their jobs and families are depending more heavily on women’s income, equal pay is an issue that’s more timely than ever, and truly affects everyone.
There are a variety of reasons for gender inequality in the workplace. Many of them are complicated, and some are not completely understood. But in sharing these cautionary tales and personal victories, research and anecdotal evidence, I hope women will learn something that helps them chart their own course. I don’t claim that we will eliminate the gender wage gap — not even close. But we can strategize and do much better for ourselves, and for the next generation. What I’ve learned from the women I’ve interviewed will stay with me. I want to share their wisdom with my daughters, and in this book I will share their wisdom with you.
From “Knowing Your Value” by Mika Brzezinski. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted with permission of Weinstein Books.