Women have a sexual harassment problem. It’s not just that so many are subject to it; it’s that so few manage to report it.
Women who experience sexual harassment at work—some 25% to 85% of female workers, depending on how they’re asked about it—have found a whole host of ways to deal with the problem, including downplaying the gravity of the situation, ignoring the behavior, and avoiding the harasser. Their least likely response to abuse—filing an official complaint—is the one action that might actually stop it.
Roughly three out of four individuals who experience harassment never even talk to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the treatment, according to figures published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In explaining their inaction, many cite a fear of retaliation.
Based on those figures alone, Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor whose sexual harassment lawsuit prompted chairman Roger Ailes’s resignation Thursday, should be commended for speaking out. Her lawsuit triggered a series of events that account for one of the quickest downfalls of an executive in modern corporate America. And now that Ailes is out, there’s the question of whether the bold step Carlson took in alleging abuse will prompt other women in the workplace to do the same.
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The power that a high-profile sexual harassment case can wield emerged and reached its pinnacle simultaneously in 1991, when professor Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and subsequently endured a barrage of abuse from skeptical senators. (Thomas denied the allegations and was appointed to the bench that same year.) Hill’s testimony transformed sexual harassment from an issue that working women internalized and ignored into one that merited media attention and dinner table debate. Pundits had speculated that the ridicule Hill received would keep other women tight-lipped about their abuse, but the airing of her accusations had the opposite effect. After hearings on the matter, the number of sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more than doubled between 1991 and 1998, from 6,883 to 15,618.
No scandal today will ever prompt that big of a response from everyday Americans, says Joanna Grossman, the chair in women and the law at the SMU Dedman School of Law. But that’s not to say they don’t have any trickle-down effect.
It’s hard to measure the ways in which high-profile cases galvanize everyday women to come forward about their own mistreatment. But Marcia McCormick, professor of employment law at St. Louis University, says EEOC testimony and how complainants talk about their experiences in articles and books shows anecdotally that much-publicized sexual harassment cases do have an emboldening effect. And two aspects of Ailes scandal could mean that it will have outsize impact.
The first factor is that Ailes actually faced consequences for his alleged behavior. “How swiftly he’s been taken down will have an effect,” says Grossman.
Nothing ever seems to come from even the most headline-grabbing sexual harassment scandals, Grossman says; there’s rarely a decisive outcome. That’s because employers often settle with the accuser quickly and impose a gag order, preventing her from talking about the case. “They say, ‘We will pay you; the only thing you have to give up is the right to talk about it,'” she says.
Former presidential candidate Herman Cain, for instance, was dogged by rumors of past inappropriate sexual behavior when he ran for president in 2011. But at the time of the alleged misconduct, the two women who leveled accusations signed agreements with their employer, the Cain-run National Restaurant Association, to leave the trade group and not discuss their departure. In another case, former Tinder executive and co-founder Whitney Wolfe, who sued the company for sexual harassment in 2014, settled with the company for an undisclosed sum a few months later. Tinder admitted no wrongdoing as part of the agreement and the alleged harasser, co-founder Justin Mateen, quietly left the company.
It’s rare that sexual harassment allegations even make it into the public sphere since so many companies now have internal programs to deal with such issues. That’s a byproduct of two Supreme Court decisions in 1998 that said companies could dodge liability for harassment claims if they exercised care to prevent and correct harassing behavior. After those rulings, employers “went crazy” implementing internal policies and procedures to resolve harassment accusations, Grossman says. Potential plaintiffs often go through what equates to an in-house adjudication of their claims before they can file a lawsuit, and those processes can serve as a deterrent to bringing a case. “Employers, it turns out, aren’t very good at this,” says Grossman, since they have a stake in protecting the person with more power.
It’s no wonder then that women cite fear of “inaction on their claim” as another reason why they fail to report harassment.
Seeing an employer take allegations of sexual harassment so seriously—especially when the chargers are against someone as powerful as Ailes, “is helpful in communicating more broadly that it is not hopeless to complain about this,” says Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.
The second meaningful factor in the Carlson v. Ailes case is that the plaintiff—not just the defendant—is a well-known personality.
“It’s one thing when a famous person is accused of sexual harassment,” says Martin. In those circumstances, it’s easy for the public to side with the alleged perpetrator—especially if he’s a beloved personality—and belittle the accuser as an attention-hungry opportunist. (Carlson wasn’t necessarily spared from that characterization: Ailes claimed that Carlson’s complaint was in retaliation to her being fired in June, and Fox New host Greta Van Susteren told People that Carlson was a “disgruntled employee.”) But charges carry a whole lot more legitimacy if they’re leveled by someone who’s also a celebrity.
As host of The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson and a former co-host of the morning show Fox & Friends, Carlson had that advantage from the get-go and added to it as as many as 20 other women who came forward to say that they’d also been harassed by Ailes, according to Carlson’s lawyers. A report that network superstar and fan favorite Megyn Kelly told the company’s internal investigators that she too had been subject to the CEO’s misbehavior was the ultimate validation.
That Carlson made her claims from such a position of power and that they prompted immediate action against the alleged culprit, “reinforces for women that experiencing harassment is not evidence of some personal failure; that this is not your fault,” Martin says. “When high profile women come forward, and say, ‘This happened to me,’ it shows women that there’s strength in sharing these stories.”