Industry Issues

Gretchen Carlson on Fighting Sexual Harassment

The news anchor encourages women in the wine and spirits industry to speak up and demand action

Photo courtesy of Women of the Vine & Spirits.

When Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson came forward in 2016 with sexual harassment allegations against Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, there was no MeToo hashtag or Time’s Up movement. “It was an excruciating decision,” says Carlson. “I felt like I had jumped off a cliff by myself.” In an inspiring keynote address at the Women of the Vine and Spirits Global Symposium Napa, California, this week, Carlson encouraged women to have the courage to speak up about sexual harassment and sexual assault in their workplaces.

Speaking Out

Like many women, Carlson has endured sexual harassment and assault throughout her career. She was harassed by a stalker for four years early in her television days. Screenwriter William Goldman wrote a book in which he referred to her as Miss Piggy for being overweight when she was Miss America in 1989 (she was, in fact, 110 pounds). She was also sexually assaulted twice, in her 20s, while starting out in the television industry. The first time, she had cold-called a high-level TV executive. He spent the day showing her around the offices, making calls on her behalf, and then took her out for dinner. In the backseat of a cab, though, he attacked her. “All of a sudden he lunged [at] me and was on top of me and his tongue was down my throat. I screamed for the driver to stop and let me out of the car,” says Carlson. “At the old age of 22, I didn’t realize that breaking into the television business also meant letting him break into my pants.”

The second time, she was in Los Angeles, meeting with an agent. “Again, we were in a car—he grabbed my neck and he forced my head so hard into his crotch I couldn’t breathe,” says Carlson, adding that she managed to escape.

“Only recently did I realize that these cases weren’t actually harassment—they were assault,” says Carlson. “But like so many female survivors, I thought, ‘I’ve got this. I’m okay. Just move on, Gretchen.’ I bought into the myth that somehow I’d asked for it, and thought I wouldn’t be believed if I told people anyway.” It took Carlson 25 years to call these two instances assault out loud.

So while she encourages women to speak up about sexual harassment and assault—and also urges men to speak out when they see it happening in the workplace—she realizes how tough it can be. When Carlson’s complaints went public in 2016, she was most concerned about the impact her case would have on her children, who were 11 and 12 at the time. “They were of paramount concern to me,” she says. “My face was constantly on the news, and they were going to school.” But ultimately, she says, she underestimated her kids. Her daughter came home from school bewildered by all the gossip but said, “Mom, I felt so proud to tell them that you are my mom!” And when her daughter finally stood up to two kids at school who had been taunting her, she told Carlson, “Mommy, I found the bravery and the courage to do it because I saw you do it.”

Changing HR Policies—and the Law

Two-thirds of women in the restaurant industry have experienced sexual harassment, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center United. “And I’m not even talking about the alcohol industry, where I expect the rate to be even higher,” said Carlson in her address. “Obviously, there’s a disconnect between what companies are doing and what women are experiencing.”

That disconnect is not unique to the restaurant or beverage alcohol industry, Carlson points out. In the U.S., 98 percent of companies have sexual harassment training policies, and 70 percent have prevention programs. Yet one in three women is still sexually harassed in the workplace. “So,” says Carlson, “what we’re doing to stop harassment isn’t working.”

Carlson’s recommendation is twofold. The biggest responsibility falls on employers and the government to enact anti-harassment and anti-assault policies that work. But women also need to speak out about harassment and assault, report it, and demand action and accountability. Chapter four of Carlson’s new book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, is basically a 12-point playbook on how to document sexual harassment effectively, advocate for yourself, and help improve workplace culture.

Carlson herself has been working to change the laws—specifically, to invalidate mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts. “I know your eyes glaze over when I say that,” she says, “but this basically takes away your Seventh Amendment right to a jury.” The arbitration clause also stipulates that a woman who accuses a coworker of assault or harassment can never tell anyone what happened to her. “And,” says Carlson, “the perpetrator gets to stay at work.” In December of last year, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL), and others introduced a bipartisan bill that would void forced arbitration clauses. It must pass both houses of Congress before it’s sent to the president’s desk.

The Role Men Play

Throughout her talk, Carlson made it clear that men have bolstered her during this difficult process. Her husband, father, and son were pillars of support when her charges against Ailes were made public. Men have also approached her on the street to thank her because they have daughters, sisters, or wives who they hope won’t have to put up with the same behavior. And men like Jeffery Tobias Halter of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement, have reached out to her.

“Every man has a role in trying to fix this problem,” says Carlson. “Men in the workplace can’t allow themselves to be enablers or bystanders. If they say, ‘Don’t you ever do that again,’ then the perpetrator might say, ‘Oh! I guess I can’t get away with that again.’ We need to implore them to do that. We also need to involve them.”

With the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements gaining so much visibility and momentum, the tide seems to be turning. And Carlson thinks mens’ fears of interacting with female colleagues at all—or the notion that they might have to subscribe to the so-called “Pence rule” of never dining alone with a woman who is not your wife—are totally overblown. “No one is going to sue you if you say, ‘I like your dress’ or ‘I like your haircut’—that’s not what we’re talking about here,” she says. “We’re talking about the thousands of stories out there that are so, so egregious. Last year, a woman asked for a promotion and her male boss told her to ‘get up on the desk and spread ’em.’ So this whole idea that there’s going to be a backlash and we’re carrying it too far—no, not really. We’re just scratching the surface.”

Hannah Wallace writes about food, wine, sustainable agriculture, health, and travel for CivilEats.com, Inc., Food & Wine, Vogue, Portland Monthly, and the New York Times.

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