Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Books

Review: Gretchen Carlson stands up to sexual harassment in ‘Be Fierce’

Broadcast journalist Gretchen Carlson could have taken the $20 million she received from her sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and retired to private life in comfort.

As she writes in her new book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, her successful suit against a predator — one that resulted in Ailes being fired — provoked a withering barrage of hatred from internet trolls so vile it almost stopped her in her tracks.

But she couldn’t retreat: "Silence is the most powerful weapon of the harasser." So she has taken to heart a line from writer Anne Lamott that she quotes in the book: "Anger is good, a bad attitude is excellent, and the medicinal powers of shouting and complaining cannot be overestimated."

Carlson, 51, writes that one thing that helped her face down the trolls was the flood of supportive responses she got from other women who had been sexually harassed and assaulted in the workplace.

"Thousands of emails, texts, calls, and social media comments poured in, as women shared their stories, their pain, and their hopes. The messages were intimate, the stories heartbreaking," she writes. The women who contacted her worked at every wage level, were of every age, race and background. Many stayed silent out of fear; many who spoke out against their harassers saw their careers and lives ruined.

In Be Fierce, Carlson tells many of their stories. She also tells some of her own, although because of the confidentiality agreement she signed as part of her lawsuit, she doesn’t directly detail her relationship with Ailes, who founded Fox News.

Her harassment by Ailes and others at Fox, according to her suit, went on for years. When Ailes got wind of her intention to sue, she was fired in June 2016 as soon as her contract expired. She filed suit July 6. Two dozen other women came forward with similar stories, including then-Fox star Megyn Kelly. By July 21, Ailes had been fired by owner Rupert Murdoch, with a $40 million severance payment. (Ailes died in May 2017 after being injured in a fall.)

Fox was not the first place Carlson encountered sexual harassment.

The Minnesota native was a competitive violinist as a kid, won the Miss America pageant in 1989, graduated from Stanford University and studied at Oxford, then began a career in broadcasting. She rose quickly from local news stations to jobs at CBS and then to high-profile positions at the conservative bastion Fox.

But ambition and credentials were no shield against sexual predators. Just after she finished her term as Miss America, Carlson had meetings with a couple of news industry executives. One, she writes, "lunged at me ... and jabbed his tongue down my throat"; the other got into a car with her and "immediately grabbed the back of my head and pushed my face so hard into his crotch I couldn’t breathe."

Spare her the victim blaming; she briskly dismantles that and other lame arguments in Be Fierce. Sexual harassment is real, and it’s getting worse, not better. Carlson cites a 2015 report by a select committee of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that found "workplace harassment is unfortunately not on the decline but on the rise, with little chance of improving under the current efforts to address it, which are overly focused on avoiding legal liability and less geared toward eradicating harassment."

Be Fierce is not a memoir or a personal payback, but a well-researched report on the issue of sexual harassment, a call to arms and a guidebook for women, and men, who want to combat it.

The book, however, makes no promises that fighting sexual harassment will be easy (or, as some people imagine, lucrative). Carlson’s advice about human resources departments is to be wary of them; their mission is to protect the company, and that means they may not always protect an individual employee, especially one who is making a complaint against someone higher in the corporate hierarchy.

Carlson also warns women of the dangers of the arbitration clause that is included in many employment contracts. Such clauses can force workers with harassment complaints to accept arbitration, which can be secret and loaded in the company’s favor, instead of filing a lawsuit. Carlson sued Ailes personally rather than Fox, because of an arbitration clause in her Fox contract.

In addition to advice on how to deal with sexual harassment, Carlson calls for larger efforts to keep it from happening in the first place, through legislation — she has supported Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill on a bill to protect sexual assault victims in the military and Sen. Al Franken on one to change arbitration laws — and through education.

In the age of cyberbullying, much of it sexual in nature, awareness can’t begin too soon. Carlson writes, "Title IX statistics show that eight in ten (K-12) students experience some form of harassment in school, and for 56 percent of girls this is sexual harassment." In college, according to the Department of Justice, one in five undergraduate women reports being sexually assaulted. How girls are raised — and how boys are raised — goes to the root of the problem.

Be Fierce offers readers pages of resources, as well as Carlson’s plea for everyone to see the issue as nonpartisan. Sexual harassment, she writes, "is not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democratic issue. No harasser stops to ask what party you belong to before he acts. It’s a human issue, a women’s issue, a men’s issue. It’s everyone’s issue."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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