It has been four years since former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed her sexual harassment lawsuit against the media empire’s chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. But instead of being worn down by being one of the most prominent faces of the #MeToo movement, she’s feeling emboldened.
“Speaking about the issue of sexual harassment is the only way we fix it,” she told HRM over Zoom from her home in Connecticut. But Carlson doesn’t simply want to be the loudest voice in the room — she wants wholesale changes to the way workplaces manage complaints.
“I believe that every company should have independent investigators, and that sexual harassment claims should not be filed with human resources,” she said.
“There are a lot of fantastic people who work in human resources and this is not about those people as individuals, it’s about a system that’s been put in place. Predominantly, and unfortunately, the system has been set up to hide these kinds of complaints.”
More than a Hollywood plot line
After being fired for refusing Ailes’ sexual advances, Carlson’s experience was made into a television miniseries, The Loudest Voice in the Room, starring Russell Crowe as Ailes, and a film, Bombshell, starring Nicole Kidman as Carlson.
Research by the Australian Human Rights Commission shows that Carlson’s experience is far more than a Hollywood plot line. A 2018 survey found that only 17 per cent of people who experienced sexual harassment at work in the previous five years had made a formal complaint. Of the almost one in five workers who did make a report, 19% were labelled troublemakers, 18% were ostracised or victimised by colleagues, and 17% resigned.
After Carlson made a reported $20 million settlement with Fox News, she was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which was supposed to silence her so her story could never be told.
“Employment contracts are being designed so that no one will ever know about these incidents,” she says. “Some 60 million employees in the United States alone have signed an arbitration agreement in their contract. The second way we silence people is through non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs. “These are the two things that I’m trying to eradicate within the confines of the workplace structure,” she adds.
Gretchen Carlson’s wish list
Since becoming the public face of workplace sexual harassment, Carlson founded non-profit Lift Our Voices which is dedicated to eradicating NDAs for toxic workplace issues and mandatory arbitration clauses. She will
be headlining AHRI’s International Women’s Day virtual event on 9 March 2021 where she will be interviewed by ABC’s 7.30 Report host Leigh Sales about creating a truth-telling workplace culture.
However, Carlson says if her lawyers hadn’t figured out a strategic way to make her case public, she wouldn’t be having this conversation. She would have been written off as a ratings failure “put out to pasture” like many before her.
“Since we coined the term and acknowledged that sexual harassment is actually happening, many companies have gone into protection mode and tried to figure out how they could hide their dirty laundry.”
Carlson has put together a wish list of things she hopes HR professionals will take away from her International Women’s Day presentation, so they can join her in the fight.
“The number one thing survivors all want is to be believed, and they want to be listened to. They don’t want to be silent, and they want to be able to keep working.”
But this is only the beginning, and she notes that other structural issues in the workplace need to be addressed in order to stop sexual harassment.
“All of these issues regarding women in the workplace are related. Whether it’s equal pay, whether it’s promoting women, whether it’s giving them a seat in the boardroom, whether it’s helping to eradicate sexual harassment and instituting policies that are fair to all workers – all of these things are intertwined,” she says.
Carlson says she believes that social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter aren’t a passing fad but are running on parallel paths and will continue to gain momentum, as long as the corporate world takes its responsibilities seriously.
“What I’ve told the thousands who have reached out to me is if there was ever a time for you to be believed, it’s now. If there was ever a time for you to speak up, it’s now – because the worldwide public is interested
in hearing your story for the first time.”
Maintaining the volume
Unfortunately, Carlson fears that the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the courage and ability of many to speak out.
Evidence so far shows that it has disproportionately affected women in the workplace, potentially setting female representation in positions of influence back by years.
“I like to describe courage as the antithesis of a light switch. Courage can be a lifelong building process, it can take a month, it can take years. My decision to come forward at Fox News was a years-long process,” she says.
“Your power is your voice. And I would also say that there is power in numbers.”
This burden cannot rest on the shoulders of survivors – or women – alone. Carlson believes that change needs to be inclusive, and that it’s incumbent on all people in the workplace step up.
“I like to reach out to companies and to leaders, and especially to men, because we need them. We need companies and we need men because they are the prevailing leaders across the world. We need them to be on our side.
“This is not about male bashing. This is not about HR bashing. This is not about company bashing. This is an invitation to get on the right side of history.”
Don’t miss out on the chance to hear from Gretchen Carlson in conversation with Leigh Sales at AHRI’s International Women’s Day event. Registrations close on 8 March 2021.
This article was originally published by HRM Online on 4th February 2021.