The Fate Of Elon Musk’s Assistant as A Cautionary Tale Gets the Moral Wrong
What women’s experience can teach all of us about healthy work environments.
International Women’s Day is almost upon us, a day originally created to advance working women’s rights to shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. Today the holiday gives us a chance to recognize women’s experience and what women bring to the table economically, culturally and politically.
In 2015, biographer Ashlee Vance released Elon Musk: Space Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Based on interviews with Musk himself, as well as friends, family, employees and investors, the biography included an anecdote about Musk’s former assistant, Mary Beth Brown, that spins around the technoverse and gets recycled from time to time as a modern-day parable for start-ups and the corporate world at large.
The story goes that, after 12 years by Musk’s side as his personal assistant and contributing her own executive decisions and expertise to helping Musk’s companies grow, she asked for a raise. Musk considered her request, and suggested that she take a two-week holiday: if she was truly indispensable, her absence would be felt and her raise justified. Brown agreed, but when she returned to work, Musk informed her that he had learned to operate without her and her position was no longer necessary. He offered her another position in the company at the same pay. She refused and left to find another job.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Musk has disputed this story and claims that, rather than firing Brown, the demands of the company had evolved to require several specialists rather than one generalist; he gave her 12 months severance and stock options, and she is very happily employed somewhere where her general skills are more relevant.
Vance contends that the version included in the biography is well documented and he stands by it.
Whatever the truth of the story actually is, the anecdote itself is the one that lives on. And the anecdote — as a cautionary tale — remains one-sided and highly gendered. It positions Musk as a King Solomon of start-ups, his clever “test” as proof positive of Musk’s “dynamism” and status as an innovative visionary.
The general takeaway — in Business Week, The Ladders, the Economist and Fortune, to name a few — is that, when negotiating your salary for a new position or negotiating for a raise, employees would do well to remember that no one is indispensable and also that negotiating well in the beginning sets you up for success down the line.
And in the retelling of this anecdote, Brown is always the one who ultimately comes up short, outwitted by her clever — but fair — boss, and given a lesson in humility to boot.
“If you agree with Musk’s decision to fire his assistant from her role, it teaches you the importance of making yourself as indispensable as possible before asking for a raise. If you side with the assistant, it’s a valuable reminder to not go years with being underpaid and undervalued.” — The Ladders
Either way, whenever this story is retold, it’s always the assistant’s fault.
There is no version of this anecdote retold where Brown is not held up as someone who should have negotiated a better salary for herself from the beginning; could have negotiated smaller, more regular salary bumps rather than asking for one large increase; would have had more success if she had pitched a project that would make the company more money, and that the increase she was asking for would have covered.
What’s interesting to me here is that every time this anecdote is recycled as a cautionary tale, it’s always recycled by male authors who seem completely oblivious to what is, for every woman who hears this story, classic abusive behavior. It’s gaslighting, it’s moving goal-posts, it’s bait & switch, it’s punishment, all wrapped up into one little cautionary tale.
And every time the story is used to outline better negotiating habits it supports the same behavior. It usually goes like this:
Negotiate incremental pay raises from the beginning. It seems Brown didn’t do this when she originally applied for her job with Musk, but the flipside creates an impossible situation (a favorite tactic for abusers, by the way): if Brown had asked for the same salary from the beginning that she would ask for 10 years later, she would never have gotten the job (and probably told she was a too cocky — see below). Had she negotiated regular, incremental increases, how could she know in advance that 10 years later, the company — and her contributions to it — would be so valuable? Using Brown as an example of someone who failed to see their own worth or failed to successfully negotiate salary increases, is holding her responsible for failing to accurately predict the future.
Make it a win-win. Whenever the suggestion to make negotiation a “win-win situation”, it’s always followed with something along the lines of pointing out that the problem when asking for a raise is that you’re asking for more money for the same job; to get around this, you should “pitch a project that makes the company more money”.
But the whole point in asking for a raise is to make more money doing the same job, because the value of the job that you’re already doing to the company has increased. The suggestion that someone should “pitch a project” is literally telling employees to take on additional work, and your compensation would be for that. But agreeing to do extra work for extra pay is not intelligent negotiation: it’s called overtime.
Don’t overestimate your value. The most popular moral extracted from the Brown anecdote is that she was too cocky — she assumed she was more important to the company than she actually was, and clever Musk not only proved to her she wasn’t, but taught her a lesson in humility to boot.
I learned from my friend Yasmine Guerin, who runs Negotiatress — a Berlin-based initiative providing the tools for women to negotiate more and better for themselves— that in gendered negotiation, the traditional “male” view is always a zero-sum game: winner takes all, and loser is highly compromised. Which isn’t really negotiation, is it? It’s competition. It’s dominance.
One author calls Musk’s test “deeply utilitarian”. The definition of utilitarianism in Wikipedia is “a family of normative ethical theories that prescribe actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals”.
But this part of the Brown story doesn’t describe utilitarianism or even negotiation at all. It doesn’t even describe dominance. It describes passive aggressive behavior designed to set someone up to fail, and that cruelly gambles with a person’s livelihood. It’s a bait & switch that plays on a person’s trust, only to pull the rug out from under her.
It’s a story women know all too well, in personal as well as professional relationships: do more, work harder, prove over and over again how indispensable you are, learn to pivot every time those goalposts move, stay on top, be good, do better, be better… but remember that no one is indispensable.
Most women read Brown’s story and recognize that there is no healthy relationship where, after 10 years of commitment, one party asks the other to “prove” how necessary they are…. although there are a lot of relationships where one party asks the other for more “space” as a way to fade out of a commitment without ever taking responsibility for formally ending things.
If the Ashlee Vance version of “Elon Musk’s Assistant” anecdote is true, then Brown did what she was supposed to do: she her job, she did it well, and she asked for fair compensation after providing 10 years of measurable benefit to the company with no (known) salary increase, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask.
Holding Brown up as an example of not negotiating enough in the beginning, not offering to do even more work than she already was doing, and for being “too cocky” for assuming she was indispensable is a weird kind of victim blaming… but victim blaming it is.
The Ladders is the only place that offers a hint at placing responsibility where it really belongs (emphases mine):
If you notice that your work is being consistently undervalued, you also have the right to make your case, and leave if the offer’s not good enough. When you’ve gone years without a raise, maybe it’s not the time to reevaluate what you can do better, but what your company should be doing better. — The Ladders
Brown has remained largely silent on this topic (probably due to a non-disclosure agreement). But that’s the one I’d really like to read.
International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day honoring the economic and political achievements of women, and serves as a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.