When Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski refused to read a report about Paris Hilton’s release from jail, she moved from a little known host to a national symbol of journalistic pride. Now in her memoir, Knowing Your Value, Brzezinski discusses finding out her Morning Joe co-host, Joe Scarborough, was making 14 times her salary and how she learned to raise her voice.
While knowing your worth is a universal piece of advice, reading interviews with the MSNBC host, I had to wonder if her words were ones that women of color could heed as well.
Speaking to Kirkus Reviews about editing Knowing Your Value, Brzezinski says she held no punches:
I was very frank in the book. And you know what? It was liberating to write. Not a lot was edited out. In fact, two words were edited out. I handed it to my boss, the president of MSNBC, Phil Griffin, and I sat with him, and he read this book in front of me, page after page after page—about himself, about our company, about what we went through, about the other women that have chimed in with me—and I sat there shriveled up, thinking, “This is it. How much of this are we going to redact? And how frustrated am I going to feel when I walk out the door?”
In the book there are moments where Phil uses a curse word, where he’s talking to Joe. He said, “Motherfucker, is she crazy?” Well, [in the book] I’d actually used the word “dude” to protect him. But he goes, “Nope. You know I don’t say ‘dude.’ I say ‘motherfucker.’ Can you put that back?” He basically corrected the one thing I didn’t put in there perfectly…Then he said, “What can we do to help you with this?”
Reading through her interview, it is clear that Brzezinski is a no-nonsense woman seeking to share her message with other women playing in the big boy’s corporate game. Her memoir is only the latest in a slew of career advice books that tell women to speak up when it comes to knowing their worth. And in many ways they are needed.
In their book, Women Don’t Ask, economists Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever point out that while the starting salaries of male students leaving graduate school were about $4,000, or 7.6% more than the average woman, only 7% of female students had negotiated a salary, whereas 57% of men had negotiated a higher wage.
Women often don’t ask for higher salaries and having stark evidence such as this proves women need to do a better job of getting what they deserve. But Brzezinski’s goal is not just to get us to ask for what we deserve, she is also imploring women to be daring enough to air out the behind-the-scenes politics that can factor into our experiences in the workplace. Her book is a tell-all about the inner workings and culture of one of the largest corporations (NBC) in America–undoubtedly, something like that takes courage. But should women of color follow Brzezinski’s lead or are these glass ceiling tell-alls reserved for white women?
Try to picture what would have happened if Tamron Hall, MSNBC’s “NewsNation” host, had published a book decrying her bosses at MSNBC for unfair treatment and lower wages than her male coworkers. Would that have made her a hero or next in line for a pink slip?
As a woman of color in America, there is a fine line between being seen as assertive and being seen as angry. But it is often not that way for our white counterparts.
For women like Brzesinski, being blond, blue eyed and strong is often touted as a “glam and grit” combination, like menswear worn with a touch of lace. But does assertiveness “go” with coarse hair and brown skin? Or does an aggresive personality make corporate America see this balance in women with skin like mine?
One of the toughest bosses I’ve ever had, a woman of color, was one of the most intimidating women I have ever worked for in my life. But she was also someone who I held in the highest regards. She, and her perfectly coifed bob, were the official enforcers of the dress code in our office, and she even held an etiquette class for new employees as a part of their training. In her spare time when she could relax, she was still more business than casual, volunteering to help other women achieve their dreams through the organization Dress for Success.
Around my second week with the company, she sat me down in her office for a check-up to see how things were going and to give me her initial feedback about my performance. After giving me the formal part of our meeting, she pulled in her chair closer to the table and in hushed tones said:
“You’re a bright girl. I know you already know the bar is higher, but don’t forget that the trip wire is thinner. Just because you see these folks jumping off chairs and causing a commotion, don’t be thinking you should go jumping and raising hell with them.”
In that moment, after sitting on pins and needles, I felt that her advice grounded me. The truth was that even though people expected more from me than my counterparts, she was right, I didn’t have as many chances as them to make mistakes. No, in fact, one mistake could be too many in an environment as cutthroat as that.
But I sometimes wonder if not jumping off chairs and going against the grain is part of the reason some women of color find themselves unable to soar as high as their white counterparts, even though they work just as hard. Does our adherence to the buttoned up, zipped-shut model make it harder for us to speak up for what we deserve or is playing it safe what it takes to stay in the game?