Gretchen Carlson stunned the nation and shook Fox News’ foundation when in 2016 the former Minnesotan accused her boss, network CEO Roger Ailes, of sexual harassment.
The TV personality’s decision to speak out led to Ailes’ resignation and won her a $20 million settlement.
Carlson helped open the floodgates for thousands of women who had similar stories to tell. Their voices inspired her new book, “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back,” in which she says sexual harassment is an equal-opportunity plight that affects women from all walks of life.
Through their stories, Carlson, 51, examines the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace and on college campuses, and outlines different ways to combat it.
Carlson, who grew up in Anoka and was crowned Miss America in 1989, recently spoke to the Star Tribune about her latest book, how she feels about the recent onslaught of harassment accusations in Hollywood and beyond, and what we can do as a society to change America’s culture of sexual oppression.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: After your lawsuit, why did you decide to further speak about your experiences with sexual harassment and write this book?
A: After I filed my case — and I describe that as jumping off a cliff by myself — I started hearing from thousands of women all across the country. That was astonishing to me, how this issue filtered into every profession and crossed every socio-economic line from waitresses to teachers to members of our military to lawyers to oil rig operators to sports executives to people in Hollywood, and other journalists. It’s an epidemic. These women had never had their voices heard ... 99.9 percent of them, after they had the courage to come forward over the last 25 to 30 years, none are working in their chosen professions ever again, which is outrageous. I really wanted to give them a voice in the book.
[Writing the book] was also about moving the ball forward. Chapter four is a playbook. I really wanted to give women and men a plan because that’s really never been done before. People don’t know what to do, so they remain silent. I really wanted to [share] what I had learned through my process and to talk about how do we fix this? Is HR the right place to go to? How do we parent our kids? How can men help us?
Q: After your lawsuit, other women began to come forward. And recently, on social media, women of all backgrounds shared stories of harassment with the hashtag “Me Too.” Do you feel like you had anything to do with that?
A: Yes. I believe that when people see that somebody has the courage to step forward, it’s a reality check, that “Wow, I might do this, too.” And that yes, [women who speak out] are maligned, but they are also viewed as having their voices heard and might get a rare public apology. Even through all the pain I had to go through, and so many others have had to go through, I think women saw me as vindicated.
Q: You have said that courage is contagious. Can one woman’s story make a difference?
A: One of my favorite quotes is “One woman can make a difference, but together we rock the world.” And look at what we’re doing right now. It’s that chain of inspiration. It’s why I named my fund that I set up after [my lawsuit] to empower women and girls Gift of Courage, because truly the gift of courage is something that you can give to a woman one at a time, and then we’re seeing that it exponentially grows. It’s incredibly optimistic because cultural shifts don’t happen fast. But we are watching this develop at a rapid pace, and it’s not going away.
Q: Are we at a tipping point for change in the conversation around sexual harassment?
A: Yes. I believe that we will finally see change happen. We’ve already seen it on Capitol Hill. Minnesota’s [Sen.] Amy Klobuchar passed a mandatory sexual harassment training last week for members of Congress and people on the Hill. I could’ve never predicted any of what’s happened since I filed my suit, but it’s pervasive and we are seeing that play out now. It’s mushrooming and I can tell you right now there are more big stories that are going to be coming up.
Q: You’ve been working with senators to make some tangible changes to laws that force victims of workplace harassment into silence. Tell me about that.
A: I’ve been working diligently on Capitol Hill to change laws regarding arbitration clauses in employment contracts, because they are all secret. Sixty million Americans have signed employment contracts that have forced-arbitration clauses in them and most people don’t even know it. What that means is you give up your Seventh Amendment right to a jury process if you have a dispute at work. Nobody expects to start a new job and have a dispute. I know I didn’t. But then it’s a dark day when you find out that you basically have no recourse except to go to a secret chamber. I am determined to get a bipartisan bill that would at least take the secrecy out of these arbitration clauses. I know that the only way that it works is to get bipartisan support. Sexual harassment is apolitical. And this is why we should all care about it.
Q: There’s a lot of discussion happening among parents about what they can do to change the course of sexual harassment for their sons and daughters. What’s your advice to them?
A: That is 100 percent why my last chapter is all about parenting. I’m blessed to have a 12-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, but I’ve always said that I work more for my son than my daughter. I want him to see a strong, powerful woman at home so that he will treat his female colleagues when he gets into the workplace the same way in which he looks at his mom. I think gender equity is the key.
There are so many subtle cues that we give to our children. They are watching and listening to everything. It’s incredibly important that we raise our kids in an equal fashion. Early on my daughter asked me if governors could only be men, but since my story broke, my kids are asking me when I might run for president.
Q: What is next for you? Do you see yourself in politics, back on TV, in news or back in Minnesota?
A: I bring my kids to Minnesota for sure once a year, because I think it’s incredibly important for them to see the wonderful place where I grew up and the values and Midwestern sensibilities that I am passing on to my children. I love coming home and I’m still a huge sports fan of all the teams there.
Right now I have five full-time jobs. I’m doing the work on Capitol Hill, I wrote my book, I set up the Gift of Courage Fund, and I also set up the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative for underserved women. It’s a nine-city tour where underprivileged women can come and learn more about this issue and get help.
And yes, I do plan on going back to work because I have worked my whole life. I live every day for my motto which is “seize the day” (carpe diem). I’m working right now on a television project with an iconic Hollywood producer, which will be out in the spring. And I just started to dabble into TV and am figuring out what exactly I want to do. I’m not sure if it’s what I was doing before, but I know I still have a lot to offer and I want to make an impact. I have been asked to run for politics. It’s not in the cards for me right now, but never say never.