Sexual Harassment Survivors Talk About the Aftermath of Going Public
Winning the case is just the beginning.
When former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson reached a $20 million settlement in her headline-making sexual harassment lawsuit against her former boss, now-ex Fox News chief Roger Ailes, she issued a statement declaring that all women “deserve a dignified and respectful workplace”—and seized the moment to reveal her latest career move.
“I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of my life in which I will redouble my efforts to empower women in the workplace,” said Carlson, who later revealed to Time that she plans to speak out against forced arbitration clauses that require claims like hers to be resolved in private.
Carlson’s statement was remarkable for one simple reason: She has a next chapter. In Fortune’s conversations with plaintiffs, attorneys, and outside legal experts, the consensus was clear—for most women, filing a sexual harassment suit is a career-ender. Even those who’ve won and received settlements or damages from such a case say they’ve found it extraordinarily difficult, both psychologically and professionally, to stage a next act.
That fact can easily get lost if you only follow the cases that make national news. After all, the public adjudication of Carlson’s claims was fast and tidy. Just over two weeks after she filed her complaint, Ailes was ousted, and nearly nine weeks later she and Fox had settled. (Ailes denied Carlson’s claims.) What’s more, number of other female Fox employees came forward with similar accusations; just this week, Fox 5 reporter Lidia Curanaj filed a suit claiming she was harassed by Ailes when she applied for a job at Fox News.
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But while the Ailes case—and in some sense, the glut of women who came forward during the campaign to accuse President-elect Donald Trump of unwanted touching and harassment—suggest that the stigma around confronting a sexual harasser is beginning to fade, the non-famous women who’ve pressed sexual harassment cases against non-famous men tell a very different story.
“If it’s a Google-able event, chances are, they won’t get hired anywhere,” says attorney Lawrance Bohm, who represented physician’s assistant Ani Chopourian in her successful 2012 lawsuit against Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento. (A judge awarded her $168 million in damages, among the biggest awards in history, after she said doctors there constantly asked her for sex.) The issue, according to Bohm: Once a woman has gone public with such claims, other prospective employers worry that she could file similar charges again. Chopourian did not respond to Fortune’s request for an interview.
“If it’s a Google-able event, chances are, they won’t get hired anywhere,” says Lawrance Bohm.
Outright workplace discrimination against a woman who’s complained about sexual harassment is against the law, says Emily Martin, general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. But the reality does not always match up with legal niceties. “It’s not lawful for an employer to say, ‘We won’t hire someone [because of past harassment cases],'” she said. However, proving that you were passed over because of that history is difficult—”it’s hard to know why you don’t get a job,” she notes.
Consider Rena Weeks. In 1992, she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the law firm Baker & McKenzie, accusing attorney Martin Greenstein of groping her, pouring M&Ms in the top pocket of her shirt, and making crude remarks.
After a San Francisco judge awarded her $7.1 million in punitive damages, Weeks turned to her attorney, Philip Kay, and asked what her next career step should be.
“Phil looked at me and said, ‘Who’s going to want to hire you?'” recalls Weeks, a former legal secretary, in an interview with Fortune. Weeks—whose initial award was reduced to $3.5 million—was momentarily stunned by Kay’s answer, but the harsh reality eventually set in. “I thought about it, and he was right,” she says.
Kay, who died in 2012, may have been overly blunt with his client. But not unfairly so. After Weeks’ very public battle with one of the world’s largest law firms, she decided to move to Seattle with her husband, an accountant, and become “a domestic goddess,” as she puts it. She did not attempt to revive her career. “Once you go through all this, it takes a while to recover,” she says. “I was fortunate—I was married and had a husband who was willing to support us. But some women can’t take it or can’t do it. It’s not easy.”
To this day, she still gets recognized, but she believes becoming something of a public figure was a blessing in disguise. “I can walk in San Francisco now, and people look at me and wave at me,” says Weeks, who invested the money she gained from the suit. But even she acknowledges that there were times when the going was extremely rough. “When you go into filing a lawsuit, you have to accept you’ll be labeled as a nut, a slut, a money grubber, or a poor performer,” she says. “You have to know that’s what you’re up against.”
After the 1991 annual convention of the Tailhook Association, a nonprofit organization that supports naval aviation, Paula Coughlin, then a Navy lieutenant, sued the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, claiming that drunken Naval and Marine officers sexually assaulted her and several other women at the event. She alleged that the hotel had not provided adequate security. Coughlin, who served in the Navy as a helicopter pilot, won her case and received a $5.2 million judgment, half of which she says went to taxes and attorneys.
Coughlin says she has no doubt she would still pursue the case if she had to do it all over again. “It was a sense of duty to other women and a sense of duty to the military I served,” she says, in an interview. “We had criminals in our midst. That does not sit right with me.”
But despite the recognition she received (Glamour named Coughlin one of its 11 “Women of the Year” in1992, along with Hillary Clinton and Anita Hill, and her story was featured in the film, She Stood Alone, as well as the Academy Award-nominated documentary, The Invisible War), Coughlin says her life since the case has not been easy. “I did not anticipate the pushback,” she says. “People still don’t understand what’s happening in the military. Any time women come forward and complain about a workplace that needs to evolve, they are scrutinized and beat down by the organization they are complaining about.”
“When you go into filing a lawsuit, you have to accept you’ll be labeled as a nut, a slut, a money grubber, or a poor performer,” says Rena Weeks.
Coughlin remained in the Navy for more than three years after the case ended, and then left to start a yoga studio in Atlantic Beach, Florida. She says she left the Navy because she felt becoming a whistleblower had derailed her career to the point that she was not going to be promoted. More than 25 years after the incident, she’s still teaching yoga. While Coughlin has talked with job placement specialists, she isn’t hopeful that such consultations will help her land a position. “Most executives do not want to hire a whistleblower,” she says.
Although the money Coughlin received from the case has allowed her to pursue what she calls an “altruistic career path”—she also serves as a board member at Protect Our Defenders, an organization working to end rape and sexual assault in the military—she says she came forward “without any consideration toward a judgment or settlement.” Instead, Coughlin says she wanted to press her case out of a sense of purpose: “You do it for the moral and ethical reasons. Part of our role as humans is to protect.”
Coughlin says people see the money, which she invested, in the wrong light. “People who have not been embroiled in this kind of high-profile, high-stress situation look at the money as a win,” Coughlin says. “It is not so much a win as an opportunity for the victim to rebuild. It will help in healing some seriously deep wounds.”
“Any time women come forward and complain about a workplace that needs to evolve, they are scrutinized and beat down by the organization they are complaining about,” says Paula Coughlin.
For her, that meant being able to leave the Navy, get married, move, buy a house, and have enough money to go back to school if she wanted. Coughlin, who’s currently in the process of getting divorced, says the payment initially helped her cope with the aftermath of the incident without the added stress of having to find a job right away. “The world looks at the money as, ‘Wow, she made it,’” Coughlin says. “Nobody looks at the trajectory of a career.” After a sexual assault, she says, “You’re not the shining star you used to be. You’re kind of a shell.”
Carlson, Weeks, and Coughlin are relatively unique in that they spoke out about their mistreatment. According to a report released in June by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, most employees are afraid to report episodes of harassment, in large part because studies show that companies respond with indifference, trivialization of the complaint, and at times, hostility. One academic study even showed that 75% of workers who came forward faced “some sort of retaliation.” As a result, many sexual harassment victims conclude that reporting the issue is simply not worth it.
Indeed, Claire Dawson, an employment lawyer at the law firm Slater and Gordon in London, says that in her experience, some women who are sexually harassed simply leave and find another job. The reason: They don’t want to face a public hearing. “It takes a certain kind of person to say, ‘I’m going to complain about this,’” Dawson says.
Despite the difficulties faced by women who do come forward, many agree with Coughlin that they would do it again. Anita Hill, who may be the most famous victim of sexual harassment after bringing the issue to national prominence in 1991 by accusing then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of using “work situations to discuss sex,” said in an appearance at Fortunes Most Powerful Women Summit in late October that she, too, would come forward again.
Her 1991 appearance had an impact, laying bare the number of cases that were going unreported nationwide. According to the Washington Post, the EEOC received 10,578 sexual harassment complaints the year after Hill testified, up from the 6,126 it received the year before.
Hill believes that progress has been made since she faced a grilling on Capitol Hill. “I think we are in the middle of this conversation right now in a way we weren’t 25 years ago,” she said at the Fortune event. In the age of Trump and Ailes, women need to “take control of the conversation and move it forward,” she said.
One way to do that is to put some of the onus on men, which could ease the backlash female accusers face. Silicon Valley consultant Valerie Aurora has adopted such an approach. As the Guardian recently reported, Aurora delivers what she calls “ally skills training” to teach people in positions of privilege—namely white men—to change their behavior instead of expecting marginalized employees to change theirs.
Likewise, in a recent piece in the New York Times, Gretchen Carlson argued that men can help diffuse the issue of sexual harassment by hiring more women for top positions. She wrote that men “need to stop enabling harassers by egging them on or covering up or excusing their bad behavior.” That way, Carlson asserted, women won’t have to solve the problem alone: “We need men to be onboard, too.”
Her point is well taken. If others start to frame the issue that way, the goal of not passing the problem onto the next generation may actually have a fighting chance of becoming a reality.