Calling Out Sexual Harassment: How Gretchen Carlson Is Leading The Crusade To Fight Back


As women continue gaining more courage to speak out against sexual harassment across virtually all industries, from media to tech, and most recently entertainment; they have one woman they can look to for inspiration. Her name is Gretchen Carlson.

Arguably the mother of the modern day movement to end the “socially acceptable" climate of sexual harassment, Carlson famously paved the way for other women to confidently reclaim their power and voices after she filed a lawsuit in July of 2016 against Roger Ailes, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fox News. Although the allegations of sexual harassment against Ailes have been denied by the company, Fox News fired Ailes within a month that the suit was filed, and paid Carlson a $20M settlement.

Following the case, Carlson established The Gift Of Courage Fund, which focuses on supporting organizations that work with women, including survivors of sexual harassment, assault and abuse. Her ultimate goal with this project is to help girls and women realize their full potential and the bright future that awaits them.

Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

After her first book, Getting Real, where she shares her tips and advice to finding success in the real world, Carlson is now sharing the “raw emotions" of what she went through during her 26 years in television, and before that as a young beauty queen, in her new book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment And Take Your Power Back. Available for pre-order and officially launching on October 17, the part autobiography, part handbook, is meant to provide women with a virtual toolkit to step up against their harassers. Carlson says that although it wasn't easy to be this public about the injustices she faced, she decided to pen the narrative in order to empower the new generation of young women.

“Deciding to make my voice heard was the biggest decision of my life," Carlson wrote in an InStyle op-ed. “I worried about what it would do to my career and my two preteen children. But with my 50th birthday looming, I saw an opportunity. Women are socialized to look at 50 as a negative moment—when your body starts falling apart, you go through menopause, and you start looking older and maybe gain weight—and I wanted to defy that. I marked the milestone by speaking truth to power."

Even before becoming a well-known face on morning television, Carlson had to deal with sexual harassment. Ambitious, talented and hardworking, the blonde beauty decided she would one day become Miss America, and achieved it in 1989. Despite the glittering lights and sparkling crown, Carlson now shares that it was a dark time for her due to the ramifications of silently suffering through the unwanted sexual advances of male superiors.

“I was sexually assaulted twice during my Miss America year," Carlson wrote in the op-ed. “In The first time, it was by a high-powered television executive who had spent a day with me, making calls to agents and other TV executives, supposedly to help me get a job. After dinner, in the back seat of a car, he suddenly lunged at me, sticking his tongue down my throat. He was on top of me and I couldn't move. Flustered, shocked, and panicked, I somehow got away from him and screamed for the driver to stop the car. I ran up to a friend's apartment and just started bawling. Why did it happen? Didn't he want to help me? I thought he respected who I was. I didn't call the police for the same reasons many women still don't: No one will believe me. It will hurt my career. They'll wonder what I was wearing and if somehow I asked for it."

This fear that Carlson felt is the exact reason so few women decide to come forward and talk about being victimized by highers up in the workplace, she explains in an interview with SWAAY. To combat this common reaction, she is focused on giving women strength through community support. To that end, Carlson is donating all the proceeds of her book to Gift Of Courage Fund, and has established the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative, a year-long national program meant to bring civic leadership and advocacy training to underserved women across the country. She will kick off a nine city tour in November, starting in Dallas, Fort Worth. According to Carlson, each stop will offer three days of workshops for underprivileged women across topics like sexual harassment, domestic violence, and how these women can be more civically and politically involved and have their voices heard.

“When you're silenced in that way you silence yourself your whole life," Carlson told SWAAY. “I really wanted to reach out to underserved women because one of the questions I keep getting is 'how do you help the single mom who is working two jobs, trying to make ends meet and is being sexually harassed? She can't quit her job.' It really gnawed at me. So, this initiative (which is free for all women to sign up for) is the beginning of the answer to that. And I'm really proud of it."

Here, we sit down with the inspirational Gretchen Carlson to get her take on workplace harassment, Harvey Weinstein, and why now is the time for the gender-biased subjugation and stomach-churning power plays to stop, once and for all.

What inspired you to write the book?

There are a few reasons. First one is, it's an excruciating choice to go up against a powerful man and I wanted to share my raw story and my personal experiences so my daughter and her generation don't have to face the same indignities in the workplace. Number two, because I heard from thousands of women after my story broke, and that really was one of the biggest surprises to me. I learned that sexual harassment is pervasive in every profession, from waitresses to Wall Street bankers, and everything in between. And, women felt comfortable sharing their stories with me, painful stories that many hadn't told anyone else, including their husbands. They said two things to me, 'you are the voice for the voiceless' and 'through you we have felt victorious.' Even though in their own stories they probably never saw anything close to victory, they felt it through my story being so public.

I felt a sense of duty to give something back to them and keep this movement going, and look where we are today. So many more women have been given that gift of courage [which] I like to say is contagious. We are passing along a chain of inspiration one woman at a time. All these women now finally put a name and face out and spoke up against Harvey Weinstein, and that took immense courage. I know all too well what it took. This is why I didn't just go home and never be heard from again. I had to do something about this and I did it, and it's working now.
The release of your book couldn't be more perfectly timed. What do you think of all that's going on in terms of sexual harassment at this moment?

The floodgates are opening. Often times people don't think that a singular voice can make a difference but I'm living proof of that and I'm so proud if I had anything to do with these other women feeling that they have the courage to do the same thing. Susan Fowler from Uber personally told me that she would have never done it if she hadn't seen my story. I've been asked a lot 'would you do it again?' and the answer is yes. First and foremost, because I had to change the narrative for the next generation. And, when I realized that what I worked so hard for, for 25 years, was about to be gone, I knew I had to do something.

They say when you move to New York City, 'location, location, location' means everything. As for the book and this movement, it's all about 'timing, timing, timing.' Timing is so important. Look what happened with the Women's March; that came after my case but it kept the ball rolling. Women are saying 'we're not going to take it anymore. Enough already' in every aspect of our lives.

"Often times people don't think that a singular voice can make a difference but I'm living proof of that"

Carlson's new book - Be Fierce: Stop Harassment And Take Your Power Back.

If you could summarize the most important takeaway from your book, what would it be?
I want people to know that this book is not just about sexual harassment. This book is about being fierce in your whole life, in any way that you feel you've been put down or subjugated, and that can start in elementary school when you're bullied. It can follow you all the way to college, where one in five women face sexual assault, which is why I'm doing a college campus tour. I will be speaking to both young men and women because it's so crucial that we get this message to them [Carlson is scheduled to speak at Duke, Yale, Stanford, Harvard and Drexel]. Then it moves to the workplace, and it's not just about harassment; it's pay inequity, it's about not getting the promotion you worked so hard for, or not getting the seat in the boardroom that you deserve. This is a rallying cry for all women to know that in the message of my book they will feel empowered to take on anything. I also want people to know my book is for men too. I have a whole chapter on men and the great work so many are doing to help the mission. That was a really important chapter and it ended up being the longest one because I found so many great men in my research. I also have a playbook chapter, where I tell women if they are faced with sexual harassment, here is what you need to do point by point, so they have a plan. I also have a parenting chapter, because It starts at home, and [the question of] how do we raise our boys and girls as equals [has never been more important].

"I want people to know my book is for men too. I have a whole chapter on men and the great work so many are doing to help the mission."

You give solutions in your book to eradicate sexual harassment once and for all; can you share a few?
Often times what happens is women put up with it [for a long time], and then they suddenly decide one day 'I'm going to do something about it' and they go complain but they don't have a plan. You can't put the genie back in the bottle once you [speak up]. You have to document everything as well as tell trusted friends so you have alibis and evidence, that's number one. Every woman needs a plan before speaking up.

Number two is the workplace. I advocate in the book for changes in the way we handle sexual harassment. First and foremost is that maybe HR is not the best place for women to go file a complaint, because you have to remember that even if there are lovely people working in HR, their paychecks come from the company. So, I advocate for an ombudsman, an outside resource that's independent.

I also advocate for changing the social harassment training to focus more on bystander training. One of the ways that sexual harassment is allowed to be so pervasive is that bystanders don't speak up because they're also fearful of losing their jobs. We need to incorporate more training to make people feel more secure being allies to the victim. Look at the Donald Trump/Billy Bush case, it's the perfect example of an enabler who can turn into a “stopper" if he says 'I don't think that's funny,' which would stop the situation, rather than normalize it within the workplace culture.

"One of the ways that sexual harassment is allowed to be so pervasive is that bystanders don't speak up because they're also fearful of losing their jobs."

The third point is to encourage CEOs of companies to sit down with their employees and from the top down tell them that there is no way they're going to put up with sexual harassment in their company, and that they are going to celebrate the women and men who bring it to their attention. The idea is to make speaking up a positive thing, rather than a subject for a woman to muster the courage to come forward. It's so unfortunate that in 2017 women are still labeled troublemakers, bitches, divas, gold diggers, fame seekers, and not to be believed. All of those myths are why women don't come forward.

Are there any resources available to women after they stand up to their harassers?

Two young female entrepreneurs have come up with this amazing website, called Betterbrave.com. You put in your name and information and they will help you get an attorney. That's a really important part of my playbook. If you can, you should always get an attorney. That's why I'm launching my leadership initiative to provide women who can't afford it with access to attorneys and legal help. I think that women collectively, especially millennial women, need to take the bull by the horns on this issue, and suggest within companies to have focus groups and dialogues involving their male colleagues. We need to bring sexual harassment to the forefront so that it's more acceptable. Also, collectively we need to have each other's backs on this issue. If we do that and take it out of the shadows of secrecy, and it happens to a young woman, she will feel comfortable to say 'hey remember that pact we made' and then they go en masse [to report it]. If they do that, it's over.

“Sexual harassment really isn't about sex, often times it's about power. It's a way for a man, who feels intimidated by a strong woman to show her who is in charge."

Why is it that men in power go “there" and women in power don't typically? It is all about sex?

That goes back to the way they are raised and the culture we are propagating on college campuses, which is why I think it's so crucial that my message spreads out to colleges. This needs to start young because sexual harassment really isn't about sex, often times it's about power. It's a way for a man, who feels intimidated by a strong woman to show her who is in charge.

It starts at an early age.

If we are addressing this issue when men are in their 30s and 40s in the workplace, it's too late. Harassers aren't born harassers; it goes back to how they are socialized and that is why it's important that we raise girls and boys equally. I could write a whole book just on that. If a man felt self-empowered in a situation, he just carries on into the workplace. We see it in tech; look at all the VCs where women don't have a voice, and the Uber story and Silicon Valley. These are young men who are falling into the trap.

Can you speak about disclosure agreements? Why do they exist? Do they reinforce the gender gap?

These secret mandatory arbitration clauses need to go, and young women need to really know when they are signing a contract if they are included. Many times you can't avoid it because you need to sign them to get the job, but they have to be eradicated, and that's been the focus of my work on Capitol Hill for the last year. I'm trying to get a bipartisan bill passed to at least get the secrecy taken out. Because what happens is, if you have a dispute at work and you have signed one of those clauses [in your contract], nobody ever finds out that this is happening to you because once you file a complaint, it goes directly to secret arbitration. You don't get a jury trial, you don't get an open court, and nine times out of ten, the woman loses, she's fired and can never talk about it. No one ever hears about it, while the perpetrator gets to keep his job. That's exactly what is happening across all companies every single day. And, when it's [a culture of secrecy], women don't come forward, because they think it's only happening to them.

Any comments on the Weinstein case?

The Weinstein company and all companies should agree to waive the NDAs and confidentiality agreements gagging and silencing women forever so they can publicly tell their stories.

There have been a flood of these allegations as of late. Are you hopeful for things to change?
I do believe we can make a difference. I believe our next generation cares more about making a difference than my generation did. I think millennials want to see the end result of their good work. They like to work together on a project and do something collectively and make a difference.

I also want to mention how important it was that Taylor Swift came out and openly shared her story. For millennials, she was a huge positive voice on this issue. And actress Amber Tamblyn came out and wrote an op-ed in the Times a few weeks ago. It is this gift of courage [being passed along], where more and more women are saying 'enough already, we're not going to put up with it.' This is just the beginning. We're going to keep going.

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Fresh Voices

My Unfiltered Struggle of Introducing a Product to a Neglected Market

Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses

Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.

I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".

Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.

I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.

I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.

I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.

The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony

The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.

I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.

I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.

I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke

I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".

It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.

I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.

From Paper to Digital

We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.

The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.

I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.

I second guessed myself all the time.

A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.

I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.