IN EARLY 2008, Mika Brzezinski had been cohosting MSNBC’s Morning Joe for almost a year, yet she says that, in terms of the job, she felt “at the bottom of the barrel emotionally.” The team’s presidential-primary coverage had created major buzz, and ratings had soared, but even though she’d been one of the architects of the show’s success, she was still operating under an MSNBC “floater” contract and wasn’t even an official Morning Joe employee. As such, Brzezinski had to lay out her own cash for camera-ready hair, makeup and wardrobe, and other expenses related to her three hours of daily airtime, resulting in near-constant checking-account overdrafts. But most important, her salary was a mere 7 percent of what MSNBC was paying Joe Scarborough, the show’s host. Sure, as the program’s creator, he should earn more than the rest of the team, Brzezinski reasoned, but did the network really think she was that much less valuable? Brzezinski also made less than her fellow cohost, Willie Geist.
While she was hardly poor by many working mothers’ standards, Brze-zinski thought it was only fair that she get a raise. She made several overtures to MSNBC, but when they all failed, she told Scarborough she could no longer work in a position where she felt so grossly undervalued. She didn’t blame her colleagues for being better at negotiating their own compensation, or even her bosses for not giving her what she was worth. “I was the idiot who signed the contract,” she points out. But she was quitting. That set off alarms. Scarborough found a quick and unusual way to reward her financially (more on that later), and Brzezinski had another, much more satisfying sit-down with the network boss, Phil Griffin.
Happy ending? Yes. But resolving her own situation wasn’t enough for Brzezinski. The experience prompted her to start talking to other prominent women—including senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and FDIC chief Sheila Bair—about their salary snafus and successes. The result: Brzezinski’s new book, Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth. (Speaking of knowing your value, Brzezinski and Scarborough denied rumors, swirling at press time, that they were shopping a new show to other networks.)
A consummate multitasker, Brzezinski spoke to More about her book and her bottom line while out for a run—she was on foot, we were on the phone—near her home in Westchester County, New York.
How did you originally ask for your raise?
I went in apologizing: “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to take your time. But I was wondering if . . . ” Which of course is saying, “Please don’t give me a raise.” Then I said, Feel sorry for me: “It costs so much to work here, between hair and makeup and clothes, and I’m just not making enough, and you need to fix all my problems.” Playing the victim didn’t work either, because it’s not your boss’s job to worry about your problems. But feeling grateful and apologizing had been a lifelong [pattern] for me. I think it’s a very girly pattern.
So you tried to negotiate like a man?
I saw how Joe and Phil [Griffin] solved so many problems by being two bulldogs spitting everywhere, slashing their paws at each other and being all manly—then afterward they’d sit down and be like, “Are you going to the game this weekend?” So I went in and said, “F—, Phil, what’s the deal?” F-bombs flying. His eyes widened. We both stood up. I poked his chest. He awkwardly poked mine back, by my shoulder. I could feel him going, “Ew.” He called both Joe and Chris [Licht, Morning Joe’s exec-utive producer] that night and asked if I was crazy. Crazy didn’t work, either.
What finally worked?
Knowing what my value was and being ready to walk.
When you said you were quitting, didn’t Joe Scarborough buy some time by giving you his own bonuses, which were structured in his contract to kick in if the show attained certain ratings?
At first I was really embarrassed about being given [what felt like] a handout. But Joe insisted it was a business decision. In his mind, the incentives were money he was making because of us.
To decide whether or not to accept Joe’s offer, you called your dad [former National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski].
I thought maybe he would judge me and not condone it. But he agreed it was a smart, interesting business decision.
Then you finally asked MSNBC for a raise in a straightforward way?
Yes. It was me talking. I said to Phil Griffin, “You are a bad boyfriend, and you need to marry me now or this is over and I’m gone.” And I was dead serious. I said, “You’re going to do better than giving me Joe’s bonuses; you’re going to give me my own.” I went in
there knowing I was valued by the show and knowing it was up to me to get the network to value me, too.
In your book, Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, laments the fact that being girly—“helpless” or “flattering”—can sometimes work better than being assertive.
It can get a goal accomplished. And that’s great. But at the negotiating ta-ble, put the playacting away. You want more money.
But being tough can be dangerous for a woman. You tell the appalling story about Brooksley Born, who as head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission back in the late 1990s tried to warn of the danger posed by credit default swaps. She was pilloried for being “difficult,” “stubborn” and “strident” and was ultimately forced out of her job.
The only way that this problem—being seen as bitchy—is going to be solved is by having more of us around. And the only way [that will happen is if] we stop eating our young and instead let more of us in the room.
You think women eat their young?
We know better than anyone else what buttons to push to keep someone down. We know that other women, and young women, are afraid of not being liked, and we know how to keep them down. The second or third time I tried for the raise, I got called in by a woman manager, who said, “Listen, don’t do this. It’s terrible timing. People won’t like you.” That’s a quote. Don’t blame her for saying that, but be horrified at me for caring and for walking out teary.
Do you worry less now about being liked?
I don’t let myself care, and it’s hard.
You write about how bad women are at self-promotion, whereas men seem to be born with a sense of entitlement. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau adviser Elizabeth Warren, who has made the “world’s most powerful” lists of Time, Forbes and Fortune, said being called stupid “doesn’t cut to the quick,” yet “the notion that I’m self-promoting somehow makes me gasp.” That anecdote made me gasp.
When she was a professor, Warren took bad teaching shifts—“at the lousy hour on the lousy day in the lousy room”—that her male colleagues had re-fused. Why? Because “someone had to do it,” and she “felt lucky to be there.” More magazine’s editor-in-chief, Lesley Jane Seymour, talks about a time earlier in her career when she was rewarded with earrings instead of money for her “really good year.” Earrings? Seriously?
Obviously a lot of the women you interviewed became very effective at advocating for themselves professionally. What strategies work best?
Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett learned early in her career that simply working very hard wouldn’t win her advancement. She had to ask to be promoted. Nora Ephron says women need to stop being loyal “good girls” because “one way you make more money in the workplace is by quitting and going someplace else.”
Should women really push so hard? Most of us are not Mika Brzezinski, and in this economy many of us are just genuinely grateful to have a job, no matter what it pays.
I don’t know who you think Mika Brzezinski is, but she wasn’t “Mika Brzezinski” three years ago. I was a part-time fired ex–CBS anchor who went to MSNBC on her hands and knees groveling for a job. When I got a freelance job, I knew my stock was down and my value was down and I had better shut up and take it and just hang on to it. Part of knowing your value is knowing when your stock is down. That is the time to keep your head down and wait for the right moment to climb again. Then go for it.
Any final piece of advice?
Don’t apologize. Start right now. Count how many times each day you start a conversation by saying something like, “I’m sorry, I know this might be a bad time . . . ” Or “Sorry to bother you.” Just cut it out and know your value!
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of More.
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