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Carlson's settlement is "comparable" to the Anita Hill case in raising awareness about sexual harassment, says expert
The public nature of Carlson's settlement and Fox's apology could encourage women to step forward, some women say
Gretchen Carlson’s $20 million sexual harassment settlement against 21st Century Fox and the company’s unusual public apology to the former Fox News Channel anchor bring an end to her very public battle with Roger Ailes, once one of the most powerful men in media and now the ousted head of Fox News who resigned only weeks after Carlson’s team filed suit.
But a lingering question remains: Will Carlson’s hefty settlement encourage more women to come forward and report sexual harassment in the workplace?
There are reasons to say maybe it will.
Women who are facing sexual harassment at work may feel empowered by Carlson, who stood up to her harassment and won a real and prompt resolution, said Emily Martin, vice president of workplace justice for the National Women’s Law Center.
“It’s certainly the case that just because (Gretchen Carlson) did it doesn’t mean that everybody will be able to get the $20 million settlement and their apology next week, but the value, I think, of what happened in the past few months is, I think, that it is always helpful when you are struggling in your own life to have some role models, to have some examples of someone who was able to mitigate this successfully, who was able to find a solution, and who blazed a path in some way,” Martin said.
Martin said she believes Carlson’s case is a “comparably big moment” in terms of raising sexual harassment awareness as the Anita Hill hearings were in 1991. Hill accused then-Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassing her.
There have certainly been sexual harassment allegations that have captured the public’s attention since Hill came forward, but for the most part, until Carlson, the accuser has always been someone people don’t know, said Martin.
“I can’t think of a clear analogue where it’s not just that the person being accused is a public figure but the person who is saying ‘I was harassed’ is a public figure, who people feel they have a relationship with, who people feel like they trust,” she said.
Immediately after the Hill hearings and changes in the law to allow jury trials and monetary damages for employment discrimination cases, there was an increase in the number of women who filed sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“One of the things that’s different about this story from Anita Hill’s … is this is a story with a positive legal result,” said Martin. “Part of what this story is is that the law worked, that she made a legal complaint, she brought a lawsuit and look at all the things that happened as a result,” said Martin. “I think that’s a powerful story.”
The impact of a ‘courageous first’
Being the first to come forward is never easy, said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations and advocacy for the American Association of University Women. It wasn’t easy for Betty Dukes, a store greeter who filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart in 2001 claiming sex discrimination. It wasn’t easy for Carlson, who could not have known how many other women would have come forward and how quickly Ailes would be out of his job.
“Do I think that there will be more folks coming forward” after Carlson? Maatz said. “I don’t know that for sure but I do know this: I think that when women do come forward, they will have more support from other women who have been in the same spot.
“What this has shown is that if there’s a courageous first who is willing to come forward, that those folks who came up behind her and said, ‘Yes, me too, ‘Yes, me too, ‘Yes, me too,’ that there was a benefit,” she said. “It helped everybody.”
The very public nature of the settlement, the settlement amount and 21st Century Fox’s apology to Carlson for the “fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all colleagues deserve” also could encourage more women to speak up. In many high-profile sexual harassment cases, when women win a settlement, a gag order is often imposed, preventing them from disclosing that a settlement has been reached, the amount of the settlement and any other details of what they experienced.
“So many women who have won suits against their companies signed nondisclosure agreements and that’s thwarted many other women who might complain,” said Emmy Award-winning television journalist and New York Times best-selling author Diane Smith, president of Diane Smith Media. “They are not aware that others have had success in taking action.”
The fact that the sexual harassment took place at such a prominent and well-known company as Fox News and that the accused perpetrator was the most powerful person at the company can also play a role in encouraging women to come forward. some women said.
“I think it’s a game-changer because it shows that this kind of bias and discrimination is alive and well and in fact is being cared and fed at the highest echelons of business in this country,” said Maatz.
Janeane Davis, a business consultant for the blog Janeane’s World, said the settlement will make more women come forward because it shows sexual harassment is a real problem and occurs in big businesses even run by “important people.”
“It will make people realize that if it is happening in respected companies, people should believe it when women at smaller companies say sexual harassment is happening to them,” said Davis, a mom of four.
Why it’s still hard to come forward
Carlson’s case still shows how hard it is to come forward when you are the victim of sexual harassment, said Katharine Zaleski, co-founder and president of PowertoFly.com, an online platform linking up women in tech with job opportunities. “The size of the settlement makes clear that she had a slam dunk case and yet her veracity was questioned publicly numerous times – and even when other women came forward,” she said.
Sexual harassment is “embarrassing” and often people question what the woman did in order to be treated in such a manner, said Laura Beyer, a mom of two who said she was sexually harassed in the military and in corporate America. “Many believe she must have dressed in a certain way or must have behaved in a promiscuous manner. Rarely is the man blamed due to the fact that no one, not his wife, family, children, want to believe that he would behave in such a disgusting and vile manner,” said Beyer.
Women fear retaliation. They fear being labeled a “troublemaker.” They fear losing their jobs. And that won’t change, even after Carlson’s massive victory, some women said.
“The average woman does not have the power and visibility of Gretchen Carlson. Most women do not come forward because they fear retribution and that will not change,” said Lori Day, an educational psychologist and the author of “Her Next Chapter.” “Even though Carlson did face scrutiny and criticism, she had the backing of other women at Fox who’d experienced the same thing, and as a media personality, she brought negative press down upon Ailes, which ultimately worked in her favor.”
She added, “It is all so beyond the daily experiences of average women that I don’t think it will move the needle at all.”
Carlson’s settlement doesn’t look as “monumental” when you consider that her “abuser,” Roger Ailes, received $40 million “just to leave,” said children’s television host Miss Lori, who said she was sexually harassed by a professor while in college.
She reported the harassment and her division head removed her from his classes. However, she had to be enrolled in comparable classes at a different university.
Join the conversation
“The echoes of the harassment reverberated on as I was ostracized by my classmates,” said the social media strategist and Babble.com contributor. “I was seen as a troublemaker who refused to go along to get along with a beloved teacher. … I was victimized by my teacher’s actions and then victimized again by my own reporting of the abuse.”
Yes, the Gretchen Carlson suit will have “reverberating ramifications” in the business world, she said. Yes, it might get a few more women to step up to the mic and expose their harassing employers, she said. Yes, we are making progress and that’s a good thing.
“But the bottom line, it won’t ever really get better until the war on women is defeated,” she said, saying what’s needed is a complete end to any objectification of women by men and boys. “And that’s going to take more than dollars. It’s going to require a lot of sense.”
Will the Gretchen Carlson lawsuit encourage more women to come forward about sexual harassment? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.