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Gretchen Carlson: How to Encourage More Women to Report Sexual Harassment

Oct 10, 2017 / Media Coverage / New York Times — Gretchen Carlson

Another day, another set of headlines about a powerful man who sexually harassed women for decades, without any repercussions besides writing checks to keep his victims quiet. The accusations against Harvey Weinstein are dreadful, but the pace at which similar stories have emerged recently is mind-numbing. From Susan Fowler’s essay about her experiences at Uber to Taylor Swift’s testimony about a former radio host to Ashley Judd’s account of encounters with Mr. Weinstein, the floodgates have opened on sexual-harassment revelations. Heads up, predators. The story isn’t just that Mr. Weinstein has been fired. It’s that women’s voices are finally being heard.

The next step is to ensure that more victims have opportunities to speak up, and to see justice served when they do.

When I filed my sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News’s chairman and chief executive, Roger Ailes, in July 2016, I felt alone. But after I told my story, thousands of women — police officers, teachers, oil-rig operators, sports executives, military officers, engineers, waitresses, lawyers, secretaries — told me theirs.

As I’ve listened to their experiences, I’ve realized that the disappointing responses women often face when they go public both embolden harassers and encourage victims to stay silent.

Workplace sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that doesn’t mean the law is on every woman’s side. If her employment contract includes an arbitration clause, she’s likely to have signed away her right to a jury trial. It’s no surprise that many contracts include these clauses: They benefit employers. A 2011 Cornell University study found that employees are less likely to win arbitration cases than cases that go to trial. And when employees do prevail, they’re often prohibited from discussing the case. This veil of secrecy protects serial harassers by keeping other potential victims in the dark, and minimizing pressure on companies to fire predators.
A myth about sexual harassment is that victims who speak up can easily find other jobs. The vast majority of women I spoke with said they were blacklisted and never worked in their chosen field again after reporting what happened to them. This grim reality is likely one reason that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, roughly three out of four people who are harassed at work never report it.

For a long time, I was part of that group. When I was in my 20s, I endured a series of horrifying encounters. Once, a high-powered executive stuck his tongue down my throat during a meeting he’d scheduled under the guise of helping me “get into TV.” Another time, a publicist grabbed my neck as we sat together in his car, and shoved my head into his crotch so hard I couldn’t breathe. Not long after, a cameraman asked if I liked him touching my breasts when he attached my microphone. These experiences shook me to the core.

Reforming arbitration laws is key to stopping sexual harassment. In the coming year, I’ll be working to get bipartisan support for the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2017, which would keep mandatory arbitration clauses out of employment contracts, giving harassed workers the choice to go to court.

But we can’t wait for Congress. Companies have a huge role, too. A 2016 study published by Harvard Business Review, which mentions my experience with Mr. Ailes, identified three factors that contribute to employees’ reluctance to speak up when they witness sexual harassment: fear of retaliation; the “bystander effect” (we’re less likely to come to the aid of victims when others are present); and a masculine culture that sees sexual harassment as acceptable.

The authors proposed four solutions: Make employees aware of the problem so they know what they’re seeing; tell employees they are responsible for stepping in and helping; increase employee accountability; and teach employees how to intervene. Policies and training that codify these solutions will go a long way, and don’t require congressional action. Companies can also encourage action by appointing an independent ombudsman, or authorizing people across the organization to hear complaints.

Men are vitally important to this culture change. The more men hold their peers (and bosses!) accountable, the faster we can stop this behavior.

I’m hopeful that the Weinstein story will represent the start of a sea change in our society’s treatment of sexually harassed workers. By ending arbitration clauses, blacklisting and workplace cultures where abuse thrives, we can ensure that victims of harassment speak out. I encourage victims to stand up and tell their stories, which I know requires immense bravery. And I’m hopeful that we’ll see changes in our laws and our culture that will allow them to do so without being victimized yet again.

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