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Gretchen Carlson knows a thing or two about speaking up. In July 2016, the journalist sued Roger Ailes, the chief executive of Fox News and her former boss, alleging that he had fired her from the television network for refusing to have a sexual relationship with him.
Ailes, who died last year, denied the allegations. But Ms Carlson’s lawsuit went off like a bomb inside Fox News. After an internal investigation turned up more claims against Ailes, he was ousted from the cable channel, the most watched in the US.
Ms Carlson is now on a mission to lobby Washington to end the closed arbitration proceedings by which companies keep accusations of mistreatment of employees quiet.
It was only the work of canny lawyers that enabled the allegations against Ailes to become public knowledge. His departure from Fox News was only the start of the upheaval.
The revelation that Fox News and its leading star, Bill O’Reilly, had paid millions of dollars in settlements to women over many years ended his 22-year career at the network, although he denies any wrongdoing. Fox News and its corporate parent, 21st Century Fox, are facing lawsuits that allege sexual harassment, and gender and racial discrimination. They deny the claims.
The upheaval at Fox News after Ms Carlson’s lawsuit was in some ways a preview of the events set off last October with the publication of revelations about Harvey Weinstein.
The allegations of decades of sexual misconduct by the film producer, which he denies, emboldened others to come forward with allegations of harassment at the hands of powerful men. The #MeToo movement had begun.
Ms Carlson, who has reinvented herself as an activist, philanthropist and author, calls the flood of accusations “horrific” and “painful”. Speaking from Connecticut where she lives with her husband and two children, she adds that “it’s incredibly heartening to know that more and more women have felt brave enough and courageous enough to come forward”.
Ms Carlson, a former Miss America who was born in Minnesota, started out in local media and became a familiar face to Fox News viewers after joining the network in 2005. For seven years she co-hosted its morning chat programme, Fox & Friends.
On air alongside two male presenters who were prone to commenting on her appearance, she struck an often ingenuous tone. The comedian Jon Stewart accused Ms Carlson, a Stanford University graduate, of playing dumb.
Behind the scenes, according to her lawsuit, Ms Carlson experienced “severe and pervasive sexual harassment”. She alleged that a colleague at Fox & Friends refused to treat her as an “insightful female journalist rather than a blonde female prop”.
When she complained to Ailes, he allegedly told her: “You and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.” After she refused his advances, she alleged, he cut her salary and later fired her.
“When I realised that my career was being taken away from me . . . I finally decided that if I don’t say something about this, who will?” she says.
The part Ms Carlson played in what she calls “a cultural revolution” could easily never have happened. Her contract required disputes to be settled through confidential arbitration rather than in court. Her legal team circumvented this rule by suing Ailes individually for violating New York City’s human rights law. Fox settled with Ms Carlson for $20m and issued a public apology. A confidentiality agreement limits what she can say about the matter.
“The way in which we’ve chosen to resolve this issue as a society is in secret,” she says. “It’s prevalent and it’s multiplying because, unfortunately, it’s been a way for companies to cover up their dirty laundry. In many cases the perpetrators get to stay working.”
More than half of US private sector workers — about 60m people — are subject to mandatory arbitration clauses, according to a study from the Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank. The proportion has doubled in less than 20 years.
Critics say the clauses favour employers over employees. A study by Cornell University in 2011 found that employees won cases in arbitration 21 per cent of the time, well below the rate of 36 per cent in federal employment discrimination court cases and 57 per cent in state courts. People who won their cases before an arbitrator also received lower financial damages awards than those who went to court.
Percentage of employee cases won in arbitration, compared with 36% in federal employment discrimination court cases and 57% in state courts
“In most cases [of harassment], these women by the thousands are demoted, blacklisted, fired, shoved into arbitration, and have their American dreams stripped away from them,” Ms Carlson says. Of the many women she interviewed for her book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, on the subject, she says, nearly all “have never worked in their chosen profession ever again”.
The bill has won bipartisan backing in Congress and the support of attorneys-general in every US state and territory.
“Forward-thinking companies who want to be on the right side of history” must do more than pay lip service, she says. “Instead of a cover-your-ass façade, maybe they should actually look at whether or not they’re actually helping.” Among her recommendations is implementing “bystander training” to encourage people who witness harassment to intervene or report it.
She applauds Microsoft, which in December ended forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims and endorsed the proposed legislation. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s chief legal officer, says: “Because the silencing of voices has helped perpetuate sexual harassment, the country should guarantee that people can go to court to ensure these concerns can always be heard.”
Ms Carlson has focused on supporting women who lack her profile or platform, doing leadership and advocacy training, and setting up a charity. “From what I’ve learned, it’s everywhere . . . It’s happening in Topeka, Kansas, and Des Moines, Iowa. It’s not in Hollywood and New York only.”
Her latest effort might be her most challenging. In January she agreed to chair the Miss America pageant, which she won in 1989, after a scandal over emails disparaging former contestants written by its chief executive, who resigned.
Asked how her role in leading an organisation known for its swimsuit competition fits with her advocacy for women, Ms Carlson says: “That is the stereotypical response to an organisation that I believe has always empowered women.”
While acknowledging that the “messaging” for the pageant “has not always been done in the right way”, she underscores that it is a scholarship programme that includes a talent component. When Ms Carlson, who learnt violin as a child, won her Miss America crown, half her points were won in her musical performance.
“I paid for my entire last year of Stanford University from winning Miss America,” she says. She is promising changes to the organisation, although she declines to offer details. She adds: “If I’m putting my name and my time to this, then I’m going to be sure it is known as 100 per cent an empowerment organisation for women.”
‘Harassment was unreported by 76%’
As advocates call on companies to stamp out sexual harassment, new research suggests that many people do not trust their employers enough to report it.
A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in the US found that 11 per cent of employees said they had experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months, but 76 per cent of people never reported it. Their reasons included a fear of retaliation and the belief that nothing would be done.
“It appears that employees don’t feel that they have the power to bring allegations forward in a way that won’t harm them,” says Evren Esen, the society’s director of workforce analytics.
There is also a gap between what companies say they are doing and what employees know. While 94 per cent of the human resources professionals surveyed said their companies had anti-harassment policies, 22 per cent of employees were not sure such policies existed.
Rather than policies being outlined to people when they are hired or in yearly training sessions, they should be “continually reinforced by leaders and managers and be part of everyday discussions”, says Johnny Taylor, the society’s chief executive.
“If it’s not part of your culture to be talking about this, then it is going to be harder to curb inappropriate behaviours.”