What seemed impossible has happened: Roger Ailes’ ouster as head of Fox News following a brave move by Gretchen Carlson, who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against him. Her lawsuit sparked an investigation that led to more than 20 other women speaking up with similar claims. It’s a somewhat surprising conclusion, not the least because of the swift backlash she faced from many of her former co-hosts at Fox News — both male and female — and because of our tendency as a society to immediately doubt women when they allege sexual assault or harassment. True to the pattern, Carlson’s claims were met at first with attacks on her character as well as her professional performance at Fox News. She knew the likely consequences of coming forward, and, kudos to her, she did it anyway. But even as Fox News negotiates Ailes’ exit (which looks like it will include an infuriating $40 million golden parachute), scores of other women will face sexual violence, unwanted advances, and harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, the majority of them won’t get the media attention and won’t have the same choices and resources that Carlson had. Being wealthy, highly educated, and successful means she had something powerful and rare: options. Yet, even with everything she had, Carlson still faced repercussions, including the potential end of her career in the news industry.
Being wealthy, highly-educated, and successful means that she had something powerful and rare: options.
If these are the consequences for someone like Gretchen Carlson, imagine the situation for women who lack the same financial means, education, and resources. A single, sub-minimum-wage-earning waitress and mother of three, or a hotel housekeeper with limited English proficiency and a family, could not afford to complain or report sexual harassment or abuse. These women's silence comes at great cost, forcing them to exchange their personal safety and well-being for putting food on the table for their families. And, unfortunately, this is not a far-fetched or unusual scenario for low-wage working women, the majority of whom are women of color. A 2015 survey of 2,235 female employees conducted by Cosmopolitan found that one in three women ages 18 to 34 has been sexually harassed at work, and 81% of women surveyed had experienced some form of verbal harassment at the workplace, with 75% saying they had been targeted by male coworkers. Another study from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in 2013 showed similar numbers, with 38% of women having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s much worse for low-wage women and tipped workers. A 2014 survey by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that more than half of women in food service — the fastest-growing industry in the country — report experiencing sexual harassment from customers, vendors, managers, or coworkers on at least a weekly basis. Indeed, the restaurant industry is the single-largest source of sexual harassment charges filed by women with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Gretchen Carlson story should serve as an important reminder of the disturbing pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as how difficult it is for any woman to escape from such a circumstance. On a macro level, we need to overhaul this culture that immediately blames and seeks to silence victims instead of listening to their complaints, investigating their allegations, and offering assistance. On a micro level, there are ways to improve the response to and interventions for women who face sexual harassment or abuse at the workplace. This moment presents an opportunity to assess your work environment, reporting procedures, and harassment policies, whether you’re a member of management or an employee. Employers should be proactive in ensuring they have policies that meet the needs of their employees, and employees should take the time to review workplace policies and reporting procedures so they know what to do to help a coworker or themselves. Although Ailes faces consequences for the allegations leveled against him, the consequences for Gretchen Carlson in the court of public opinion, and potentially in the news industry, unfortunately may linger for some time. However, because a well-known journalist had a podium, a voice amplified by her status, access, and notoriety, Fox News may review its sexual harassment policies and firm up reporting procedures. But what about those workplaces that don’t have such a light shined on them?
what about those workplaces that don’t have such a light shined on them?
I have no doubt that eventually, Carlson will find a place for her considerable talents. But I continue to worry for the one in three women in the U.S. who face sexual harassment at work and who aren’t Gretchen Carlson, and do not have a podium or a voice. For those women, a paragraph buried in an employee handbook and a 60-minute mandatory training from lawyers do very little. Employers should check these boxes, yes, and satisfy the floor of their legal obligations, but in order to create change for working women and the families they support, we must also ask workplaces to reach toward the ceiling. A safe and supportive working environment, a commitment to fair wages, transparent intentions, and a culture of real opportunity ensure working women can get to the business of thriving, rather than just surviving. Linda A. Seabrook is general counsel for the national nonprofit Futures Without Violence, where she leads Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence: A National Resource Center, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women that works with employers, workers, and advocates to develop and implement workplace policies that prevent and respond to domestic and sexual violence. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. To learn more, follow @WorkplaceNRC.