Understanding the mixed messages in Mika Brzezinski's new advice book for women in the workplace
You're doing it wrong. This is a message most women receive from about age 6 until, presumably, death. After decades of learning that being ourselves is tantamount to inviting failure, whether in love, friendship, parenting, career, or overall happiness, we can only assume that we'll recline on our deathbeds and be informed that, over the course of our last few minutes on this mortal coil, we've been far too "clingy" (Not the best way to get people to mourn your passing!), yet much too "bossy" and "overbearing" with the nursing staff (You catch more bees with honey!), and also so "controlling" (Stop trying to influence how your children remember you! For godsakes, let it go!) and "neurotic" (It's just death, everybody does it. You're overthinking this!) and too "emotional" (Can't you see that you're making your children uncomfortable?) but also too "cold" (Seriously, when was the last time you gave your husband a blow job?) and too "vain" (I can't believe you're trying to hide your bed pan at a time like this!) but also too "resigned" (That hospital gown isn't doing you any favors!). We will say goodbye to our friends and family knowing one thing, beyond a shadow of a doubt: They're just not that into us.
In her new book, Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You're Worth, Mika Brzezinski, cohost of MSNBC's Morning Joe, urges women to ask for the raises they deserve. Although the book is well written and packed with pragmatic advice, it might just as easily be titled, You're Doing It Wrong Again, Dummy. Naturally we already understand the basic thrust here, and it appeals directly to some part of our lizard brains, the part that's been conditioned to sizzle and spark at the sound of certain words, words like "self-sabotage!" and "wrong!" and "bad!" We've heard these same directives over and over again during the course of our lifetimes, after all, sometimes with the derogatory tone, sometimes with a nurturing, hand-holding, ya-ya sisterhood tone in its place. From Women Who Love Too Much to Lies Women Believe to Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office, books about how women mess up their lives have crowded our bookshelves for decades. Brzezinski's missive combines the two messages common to these books: 1.) Stop being yourself, at all costs. And 2.) You go, girl!
More specifically, Brzezinski asserts that women are self-sabotaging because they a.) don't ask for what they want and need at work because they b.) feel lucky just to have the job and c.) place a lot of emphasis on feeling appreciated and needed, plus they d.) assume that if they work very hard and make themselves invaluable, that someone up above will notice and then they'll be rewarded for it. In other words, women are polite, grateful, considerate, and hard-working and they believe that these are qualities that will make them successful in the modern workplace. Ha ha ha ha! What fools!
In response to her own work woes (she fought for a raise from NBC for years, and still reports that she's paid much less than cohost Joe Scarborough), Brzezinski solicits input from a long list of successful professionals in her book, from Newsweek/Daily Beast editor Tina Brown to money guru Suze Orman to businessman and birther Donald Trump. Most agree with Brzezinski that the workplace can be a tough place for women. So why does the conversation shift so quickly from What's Wrong With The Workplace to What's Wrong With Women? "We are our own worst enemy," Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett tells Brzezinski. "Somehow it's unseemly for women to promote themselves. We think that there's a meritocracy that's hierarchical, and the people at the top make the decisions about what promotions are based on." Hold on there. Shouldn't the workplace be a hierarchical meritocracy, ideally? Can we at least take a second to mourn the fact that it isn't, before we explore the folds of our ignorance yet again?
Jarrett suggests that women shouldn't sit back and wait for their bosses to recognize their work. Instead, they must demand to be recognized, they must "charge the hill" like their male counterparts! Carol Smith, former chief brand officer at Elle, agrees. "We women think we will work very, very hard [and] we will get the gold star, and then the money will come. When the money doesn't come, instead of walking into the boss's office.... We sit around and earn one fifteenth of what the man next door earns." Yes, that's what's wrong with us! We sit around, working our lazy asses off!
Throughout Brzezinski's book, big-picture questions are sidestepped for more discouraging news: When women do ask for raises—surprise!—they go about it all wrong. Brzezinski and her crew advise against being "apologetic" (by starting your request with "I know you're busy, but..."). Instead of explaining yourself or your particular situation, instead of looking "sad" (as Tina Brown puts it in the book), women should march right in and throw down the gauntlet like men do, saying "I deserve x and I'm leaving if I don't get it."
But ladies, make sure not to be too assertive when you're throwing down the gauntlet, because, as Brzezinski points out, both men and women judge assertive women badly. The author also asserts (but not too assertively!) that simply aping what men do rarely works. "Authenticity is a huge deal," GE CEO Jack Welsh tells her. But hold on! Haven't we already been told that our authentic selves—so sensitive, hard-working, emotionally expressive, and polite—are getting us into this mess in the first place? How is it even possible to assert yourself without seeming assertive, or to imitate men without seeming inauthentic? Even if you succeed at that crazy charade, it's unlikely to work, since, in studies mentioned by Brzezinski, both men and women judge the same job candidate as more competent and better qualified if there's a man's name on the resume.
Although Brzezinski acknowledges the difficulty in walking this "tightrope of acceptable behavior," her book is a rallying cry for women to get the money they deserve by... walking that tightrope. Even in closing, Brzezinski takes a look at the current state of affairs for women in the workplace, then shrugs and admits that there are few clear answers. Instead, she turns to Tina Brown, who confesses that in many corporate environments, "you either leave or you fight like hell or you're squashed.... I think the best thing for women, frankly, is to leave and start their own companies."
Apparently, we really are our own worst enemies. Because, rather than enlisting us to challenge the impossible standards applied to women in the workplace, rather than instructing us to confront those who shortchange or replace women on maternity leave, or who denigrate respectful co-workers while glorifying arrogant so-called superstars, this book once again instructs women to speak up (But not too loudly!), to put our foot down (But gently! Don't get mad!), to make allies with "influential men" (But don't give them the wrong idea!) and to show some emotion (But not too much!). Do we really have to choose between blending in with the lunatics in the asylum, or sacrificing our careers for the sake of our principles?
Maybe it's time we abandoned this pattern of alternately denigrating each other, then puffing each other up with empty "You go, girl!" pats on the back. Rather than struggling to find some imaginary "right" way to stand up for ourselves in the workplace, perhaps we could refocus our efforts on standing up for each other—which should include decrying the absurdly biased, nonsensical practices we encounter every day. Together, we have to believe that someday, we might live in a world where it doesn't feel like a big mistake just to be ourselves.