Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox news presenter-turned campaigner against workplace sexual harassment, has urged women victims to carefully collect proof and resist employers who force them to sign away their rights to speak out against abuse.
Carlson was let go last year after filing a lawsuit claiming repeated sexual harassment by her boss, Roger Ailes. The suit eventually yielded a $20 million settlement — and precipitated the Fox chairman’s departure. During a Thursday session at Women in the World, Carlson, who taped some of her interactions with Ailes, argued that her case was instructive for how to document and respond to workplace harassment.
“Gathering evidence is crucial…. We still live in a ‘he said she said’ culture unfortunately and they aren’t going to believe you,” said Carlson, who is currently writing a book that will advise women about how to confront sexual harassment.
Carlson and the other panelists, lawyer Nancy Erika Smith, who represents the former Fox presenter, and sexual harassment victim Patricia Tomasello, urged women to carefully record their experiences, but to do so within the laws of their state. Secretly recording someone is illegal in California, for example.
But a high-bar for evidence isn’t the only hurdle facing victims. Today, the panelists noted, many companies compel employees to sign contracts that restrict individuals who are subject to harassment from going public.
“You will go to a secret proceeding called forced arbitration,” Carlson opined, “and nobody will ever hear about what happened to you.”
Part of the problem is that sexual harassment gets a free pass from the most powerful person in the country. Last weekend, the New York Times reported that Bill O’Reilly and his company, Fox, paid $13 million to five women who had brought harassment allegations. Yet even as advertisers began to distance themselves, President Donald Trump openly backed the star anchor. “During sexual harassment month, the President of the United States just called a bunch of women liars, and that’s designed to shut us up. We’re not gonna be quiet anymore,” attorney Smith said of Trump’s defense of O’Reilly.
Yet even when speaking out, the panel noted, it’s important to be tactical about who you speak to. Smith warned women about the problems with some human resources departments. “HR is not your friend,” she said. “Only call HR if you think it would be a good idea to call the KGB to complain about Putin!”
Tomasello has personal experience navigating this complex workplace terrain. After reporting harassment, she was forced out of her job as a uniformed firefighter and into a desk job. “If someone speaks out they’re immediately ostracized…. You will face retaliation.”
It’s this code of silence, the panelists say, that needs to be rejected. Speaking about the systemic problem is the first step towards addressing it.
“What I have found out is that in 2017 every damn woman still has a story,” Carlson said, “and we’ve got to change that.”
Additional reporting by Annie Wong.