Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski on Being an Underpaid Woman and How to Fight Back

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Virginia Sherwood / NBC Universal

Mika Brzezinski, Co-Host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe"

Every morning, on her top-rated MSNBC show Morning Joe, co-host Mika Brzezinski interviews the most powerful people in the political and entertainment worlds. But in her blunt new book Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You're Worth, Brzezinski reveals that like many women, she found herself underpaid and underappreciated in her job. As recently as three years ago, her male co-host, Joe Scarborough, was making 14 times as much as she was. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs spoke with Brzezinski about her salary struggle and how she would advise other women caught in the same bind.

It's hard to believe, given the success of your show, that you were so underpaid. How did that happen?
I let it happen. That's how it happened. I signed a contract. They made an offer, a very low offer. It's like buying a house. Nobody loses by trying to lowball [the seller]. And I do not blame my employer for trying to get the best value out of everybody who works for them.

You write that you initially made mistakes in trying to correct that situation.
You've got to walk in there with your information, not your drama. Leave the drama at home. Money, in this book, is a metaphor for any relationship in life. And if you deal with it directly and you confront issues clearly and with a real sense of your value, you'll get exactly what you expect and no less. And everybody's happy, and the relationship thrives.

So you're happy with the deal that you ultimately got?
There's always more money to be made. When people ask me that question, I can't just say yes. Are you kidding me? But we're in a much better place.

A theme running through your book is that women often feel so lucky to have their jobs that they don't make appropriate demands.
Look at TV as a magnified version of every other business. So, we get our first on-air break, and we're like, "Oh my God, I'm so lucky to be here. I hope no one discovers I'm a fraud. How do I keep this going, because this is such an incredible opportunity?" So you have this grateful feeling, and you're scrambling around trying to live up to this job that you've gotten finally, finally, finally.

Then we get our sea legs, and we develop our talent and our skills and our ability to communicate on the air, and then we step out to have babies. Maybe we're gone for six months, maybe a year. No matter what, coming back to work after having a baby feels like walking on the moon. And I believe we get that whole grateful-to-be-there feeling all over again. I think it's very hard to break that pattern. We end up being obsequious and needy and overly chatty and overly dramatic, when we need to be clear about what it is we bring to the table.

You note that according to an MSNBC online survey, men are more likely to ask for raises and promotions than women are. Why do you think that's true?
We want everyone to feel comfortable. We need to stop that. It's shameful. If you're undermining yourself at the negotiating table, you're undermining your husband and your kids. And they need us to bring home the bacon.

Didn't the recession change everything, though? Isn't it risky to be too pushy about money or about job conditions?
I think the word pushy is — I just take issue with that. I just don't know if a man would feel [that he was being pushy]. But you've got to know your moments. Part of knowing your value is knowing when your stock is down. Less than four years ago today, I had no job and I was begging for work. What I got was the bottom of the barrel — a freelance job making a couple hundred bucks a day on call. Trust me, that is when your stock is down in this business: when you're out of work for a year and you take a job that you would have laughed at 15 years ago. That was not the time to ask for a raise. But when our show took off, and we were a hit, and they were offering me a contract — that's when your stock is up.

I have to say, I'm a little worried by this. Women make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Are you sure you're not blaming women for society's problem?
I think that there are so many different facets to the problem. But the bottom line is, I have found, when I'm authentic and transparent, it is successful. This book is successful. And this book is painfully honest. So I'm sorry. This is a part of the conversation. Is it the whole conversation? No. But it's the one we can control.

Do you believe in any kind of organized political push for women to insist on better salary conditions?
Yes. These are important — and probably far more significant — steps in terms of the big picture. But I'm just talking about what we can do now, given the situations we're in. Especially women who have made it to a certain spot in their careers but don't know it yet. That's a special category. It's the "marzipan layer," as I learned at Tina Brown's Women in the World summit. We're just below the top, but for some reason, we're paid far differently. We've come so far. We've broken so many glass ceilings. We can change this.