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05.10.11

Mika Brzezinski on Knowing Your Value

Part memoir and part manifesto, Mika Brzezinski’s Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth chronicles the author’s struggles as a woman in the workforce—and outlines the dos and don’ts of achieving equal pay. At a cocktail party on Monday night, the Morning Joe co-host’s fans and coworkers toasted the career woman’s ascent.

It’s 10 a.m. on a Tuesday at work, and time for a change. You’ve proven your worth at your job and finally gathered up the nerve to ask your boss for a raise. You smooth over your skirt, stand up straight, and tentatively knock on your manager’s door: “I’m sorry, I know you’re super busy, but…”

On the defensive already? Better luck next time.

Apologizing doesn’t get you very far in the working world, particularly when you haven’t done anything wrong. Still, many successful and talented women have a tendency to be timid in the office—even more so when they’re a minority amongst men. It’s hard to imagine Mika Brzezinski—the charismatic co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe—not coming across as forthright in a conversation, particularly one concerning her own career. Yet she confesses to being passive at work on several occasions in her new book Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth, and advises readers not to follow in her footsteps. Brzezinski learned through her mistakes that the only way to get the positions and wages she deserved throughout her career was to ask for them—confidently, not brazenly—and have faith in her own value.

Women and men lauded Brzezinski’s numerous accomplishments at a party celebrating her book launch on Monday night, hosted by The Newsweek Daily Beast Company’s editor in chief, Tina Brown, and MDC Partners’ CEO and chairman, Miles Nadal. Prior to joining NBC, Brzezinski was a news correspondent and anchor at CBS, where she frequently appeared on 60 Minutes and reported live from the scene of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She is also the author of New York Times bestseller All Things at Once.

“It’s great to be here to celebrate Mika’s second book,” said New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to a crowd of Brzezinski’s co-workers, friends, and admirers at Michael’s Restaurant in midtown Manhattan. “Nobody’s going to tell Joe [Scarborough, Brzezinski’s morning co-host] that I said this, but he’s nothing without you!”

Scarborough was part of the reason Brzezinski almost left MSNBC after four months of busting her hump to help make Morning Joe an immediate success. Joe was the show’s creator, but he was also Brzezinski’s peer, and his salary was exponentially larger than hers. When Brzezinski sat down with her colleague to tell him she couldn’t afford to stay, he interrupted her before she could finish: “No, you can’t leave.” Almost as quickly as he cut her off, Joe quietly demanded that MSNBC transfer his ratings bonuses to Brzezinski’s account without alerting her of his ploy. She was livid upon learning where the lump sum deposited to her account by “NBC” really came from. Despite her protests, “he knew that it was a business investment, that [the show] wouldn’t be the same without her,” said Morning Joe executive producer Chris Licht. “I think it reinforced her belief that she was valuable—that the three of us knew she was valuable, and it was a question of making NBC understand it.”

Joe’s investment was a springboard for Brzezinski. If she and her partner knew she was worth more than she was earning, MSNBC’s president was going to know it too—and he was going to hear it from her, or let her go. With a subtle bounce in her gait, she walked into Phil Griffin’s office and told him candidly that she deserved to be paid more.

“You’re right,” he replied. “We will fix this. I will fix this.” Within months of their brief discussion, Brzezinski had a new contract.

This series of events led her to the culminating “aha!” moment of her career: She had been her own worst enemy too many times, continuously undermining her value in comparison to male coworkers. The same was true for countless other extraordinary women pioneering successful businesses and world initiatives, many of whom she’d worked with and interviewed as a news anchor. Her conversations with them about the working woman’s plight inspired her to tell her story—and theirs—in Knowing Your Value. A host of female professionals and visionaries contribute insight and advice in Brzezinski’s memoir cum manifesto, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, media moguls Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown, and President Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

“Somehow it’s unseemly for women to promote themselves,” Jarrett writes in Knowing Your Value. “We think that there’s a meritocracy that’s hierarchical, and that people at the top make the decisions about what promotions are based on.” There’s irony here worth exploring; in an ideal world, the work place would be a hierarchical meritocracy, with the most valuable players climbing to the leadership summit. In reality, gender often trumps value, and men dominate both the meritocracy and the hierarchy. Jarrett’s bottom line: “If you’re not asking for a promotion  … you’re not going to get the gold ring.” If you ask for it sheepishly, you might as well not ask at all.

On Monday night, Brzezinski admitted that Jarrett pushed her to write the book when she was hesitant. Buttressing her manifesto with collected stories from other career-driven women was a strategic move on the author’s part (many voices are greater than one, of course). Knowing Your Value presents Brzezinski as a natural leader and change agent with a knack for bringing powerful female figures together. “As a girlfriend, she is one of the best around,” said Tina Brown, who regularly appears on Morning Joe. “In that dawn light, Mika is always there in a really connective and supportive way.”

If women undervalued themselves in the past, supporting one another will fundamentally affect how they rate their self-worth in the future. “We are valid working members of professional society,” said Brzezinski at the end of the evening. “[We have to] look at ourselves and how we communicate our values and also how we handle each other.”

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Lizzie Crocker is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast. She has written for NYLON, NYLON Guys, and thehandbook.co.uk, a London-based website.