The recent deluge of sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein did not come as a surprise to Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host whose own sexual harassment lawsuit against that network’s then-chairman, Roger Ailes, helped precipitate Ailes’ ouster from the cable news giant last year.
Speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Carlson said that while Weinstein’s scandal did not come as a shock, she has been “buoyed” by the number of women (both household names and not) who have come forward publicly to accuse the powerful film producer of harassment or assault. And, Carlson, who settled her lawsuit against Ailes and 21st Century Fox last year for a reported $20 million (and an apology), told Vanity Fair special correspondent Sarah Ellison at the MPW summit that she hopes her own decision to speak out against harassment encouraged some of the women now confronting Weinstein.
“If I had anything to do with those women feeling empowered to have a voice, my life has had so much purpose,” Carlson said. “And, it’s something that I never ever expected that I would be the face of.”
Carlson, who has become an outspoken advocate for female empowerment, also addressed the fact that many prominent Republicans have used the alleged misdeeds of Weinstein, a longtime Democratic Party donor, to attack their political opponents. “Sexual harassment [is] apolitical,” she said. “When somebody decides to pounce on you or harass you, they don’t ask you what party you belong to.”
Ellison also asked Carlson about the backlash she faced (including from her own Fox News colleagues) after she filed her lawsuit, and how things have changed for women combatting workplace harassment, if at all, over the past year. The former Fox News host noted that non-disclosure agreements in her settlement prevent her from offering too many details about her own lawsuit. But, she said, “I can tell you this: You find out who your friends are in a big way. I heard from people I hadn’t heard from in 30 years, and I didn’t hear from some of my neighbors. So, it can be a very alone experience.”
Carlson went on to discuss the various criticisms that women in her position often hear when they raise allegations of sexual harassment against powerful men. “First of all, if you do come forward, you’ll be labeled a ‘troublemaker’ or a ‘bitch,'” she said. “More importantly, you won’t be believed. And, some people have even suggested that you do it for money or fame.”
Those are factors that any woman who is considering coming forward needs to consider, Carlson said. She called it “the most important decision of your life,” especially since it could mean putting your career on the line. “Courage is not an overnight experience. It takes time,” she said. Carlson cited her forthcoming book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, in which she advises women facing harassment to take steps like documenting those experiences (including researching your state’s recording laws), seeking advice from an attorney, and talking to trusted colleagues who might be able to serve as witnesses.
“I think women, especially strong women who’ve been successful, think that we can overcome this, and that suddenly the person who’s harassing us will just finally see us for our brains and our talent,” Carlson said. “So, we actually work harder and don’t come forward as soon as we should.”