In the end, it was a good Lutheran woman from Anoka who brought down Fox TV mogul Roger Ailes, and Minnesotans everywhere can take pride in the guts displayed by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson.
Women have made gains in the workplace, but no matter how high they go, sexual harassment remains an ugly, unspoken fact of life in business for too many.
A former Miss America who represented Minnesota, Carlson was also a talented violinist and smart — she graduated from Stanford University with honors and studied at Oxford. She built a respected career in television news. But none of that mattered when she got to Fox, where neither her brains nor talent gave her a pass from being treated like a plaything.
Ailes allegedly propositioned Carlson repeatedly, told her to display her legs, wear tighter clothing, and “get along with the boys” no matter what they dished out. Knowing she’d need evidence to take on the head of the network, Carlson used her smartphone to tape Ailes saying “you and I should have had a sexual relationship long ago.” In July, she took the powerful chairman to court.
Now Fox will pay $20 million and has already issued a rare public apology. Ailes has stepped down in disgrace. Some legal experts are calling it a watershed moment, a case that has made plain the high cost of harassment.
But that’s because outcomes like this are still the exception, not the rule.
Too many victims of such harassment suffer in silence. Others speak up only to find they — and not their perpetrator — are out of a job or demoted. Women — and some men — who just want to do their jobs instead find intolerable situations, from the suggestive remarks, the “handsy” boss, the co-worker who just won’t leave you alone, to far worse. Such behavior violates federal law, and protection against sexual harassment has been defined as a civil right. But that hasn’t stopped it. Many companies now require training in proper workplace behavior. But that hasn’t stopped it.
No place is immune. Last year, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, of all agencies, shelled out a $95,000 settlement after an employee complained of persistent sexual harassment and physical groping at the agency’s headquarters. A supervisor, when notified, ignored the complaints and instead retaliated.
Like too many businesses, Fox tried to keep things quiet at first, attempting to force Carlson into closed-door arbitration. When she refused, Carlson struck a blow not only for herself, but untold numbers of others. “Forcing victims of sexual harassment into secret arbitration proceedings is wrong, because it means nobody finds out what really happened,” she later said. Indeed, despite decades of reported sexual predation, nothing stopped Ailes’ rise to power until it was checked by the persistence and courage of one woman.
Companies as well as individuals should take a cue from Carlson. Unwanted gestures and attentions, demeaning remarks and outright coercion are too high a price to pay for a job, and they should be even more costly for the employer who turns a blind eye.