Jacqueline Smith: Not a time to stay quiet

April 23, 2017

The day after Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News, you would expect some gloating in the room packed with hundreds of women. Satisfaction.

About 300 women, and a few men, came to hear Gretchen Carlson, the personification of sexual harassment in the workplace since she won a $20 million lawsuit against the cable company last fall. The former Fox News host was a panelist at the annual Conversations with Extraordinary Women at the Amber Room in Danbury Thursday night.

Carlson’s case was against Fox Chairman Roger Ailes, who ended up leaving Fox last July, not against O’Reilly. But it certainly emboldened five women to come forward and accuse the 67-year-old top-rated cable news host of sexual harassment. Other cases, quietly settled, go back more than 10 years.

So gloating over the victory would be understandable. Even predictable. But, to my surprise, O’Reilly was barely mentioned; moderator Christine Palm gave just a glancing reference to his ouster. And that was it.

Perhaps it is classy to be above the sordid mess. Perhaps the panelists, which included “Inspirational Thought Leader” Holly Dowling, wanted the focus on their messages of empowerment, not on the abuser.

But I felt disappointed. Too much history of women being silent. Of avoiding controversy. Of being “good girls.”

The five women who accused O’Reilly got a total settlement from Fox of $13 million. The fired O’Reilly will get an estimated $25 million. Ailes’ severance last year was $40 million. Well, maybe there wasn’t that much to gloat about — the good ol’ boys made out OK. No one will be eating cereal for dinner in their house.

Still, why not talk about it?

In a New York Times op-ed on April 11, Bryce Covert argues that settling sexual harassment suits privately instead of going to public trials helps no one but the parties involved. Employers are not motivated to change corporate culture.

“Like the environment at Fox, our entire culture, which still permits sexual harassment to stalk women in the workplace, won’t change if employers can ensure that the repercussions for such harassment keep getting handed out behind closed doors,” Covert wrote.

Carlson, in an interview with the Daily Beast last week, said she can’t speak about her former employer because of the settlement.

“‘Obviously, I can’t talk about the details of the case, but my goodness, I don’t need to,’ a beaming Carlson” said in the article posted Thursday. She described, as she did that evening to the Danbury Women’s Business Council audience, that she is now a “champion of women’s empowerment.”

Carlson is advocating for a federal law, the Fairness in Arbitration Act, to end arbitration clauses in contracts that can make going public with harassment claims illegal. This would pertain to consumer issues, too. It’s come up before and Congress has not acted, but it should now.

Though sexual harassment at work has been illegal since 1964, said Palm, a communications and policy analyst at the state Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, it remains “extremely prevalent” and only one in five women report it. Whether one is worried about retribution, job loss, ridicule or humiliation, it must be difficult to come forward.

That’s why it would have helped to hear more about Carlson’s experience after she filed the lawsuit. How did she handle the reactions from former colleagues who distanced themselves or publicly ridiculed her accusations?

It is still a “he-said, she-said” culture, she said, and she felt like she had “jumped off a cliff by myself,” she told the supportive audience in response to a question.

The “conversation” with these accomplished women was empowering and inspirational. But I wish they hadn’t talked around the latest bully and the workplace culture that enabled him. As the hundreds of thousands of women who marched in January after the inauguration of the new administration so boldly showed, this is no time to stay quiet.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jacqueline Smith at jsmith@newstimes.com or call 203-731-3344.

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