In 2016, journalist Gretchen Carlson made headlines when she confronted a culture of sexual harassment at Fox News. Today, the ICBA Community Banking LIVE keynote speaker is setting her sights even higher, lobbying Congress for legislation that she believes would help end workplace discrimination.
By Roshan McArthur, Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe
Typography by Christopher Craig
Gretchen Carlson’s career has been anything but predictable. Born in Anoka, Minn., in 1966, she first found success as a concert violinist, performing a solo with the Minnesota Orchestra when she was in eighth grade.
At age 22, while studying organizational behavior at Stanford University and after being crowned Miss Minnesota, Carlson entered the Miss America pageant—and won. She graduated from Stanford with honors and then worked her way up from local news stations to co-anchor at the cable morning news show Fox & Friends to host of her own show on Fox, The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson.
Married to sports agent Casey Close and mother to two children, she was in an enviably successful position. But in June 2016, Fox News abruptly dismissed her. Carlson hit back immediately, filing a lawsuit against the network’s chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, citing sexual harassment. Numerous women backed up her claims, and within two weeks, Ailes was fired.
Carlson is reported to have received a $20 million settlement from Fox News, but under the conditions of the company’s arbitration clause, she is unable to talk about what happened to her. She does, however, admit to being pleasantly surprised by the ensuing tidal wave of sexual harassment revelations and the #MeToo hashtag that exploded across social media.
“When you jump off a cliff like that—the most excruciating choice of my life, the scariest thing I’ve ever done—how would I have known?” she says. “I didn’t even know how my own story was going to pan out, much less how it was going to start and trigger and ignite this tsunami. I feel so blessed for whatever part I played in that. That is a reason for me to get up every morning and keep working on this.”
Taking power back
And that is exactly what Carlson is now doing. Since leaving Fox, she has taken on a new role as an advocate for victims of sexual harassment and assault. In October 2017, she published her second book, Be Fierce, a “rallying cry” for women and a discussion on where to go from here. She will speak on this topic, goal setting and her life of perseverance at ICBA’s Community Banking LIVE general session next month in Las Vegas.
She wrote the book, she says, to give a voice to the almost 10,000 women who contacted her starting on the day her story broke. “That was overwhelming to me,” she recalls, “because I didn’t realize how pervasive the epidemic was. Almost none of these women are working in their chosen professions, and that is outrageous. What does that say about our work culture that we cast away women, and we don’t care? The harassers can stay on the job, but the women get fired and nobody ever hears from them again. For me, that was the impetus.”
Additional motivations were Carlson’s daughter Kaia, 14, and son Christian, 13. As she explains, “I don’t want my kids to go through any of those indignities, and I don’t want anyone else’s kids to go through them.”
Changing workplace culture
Although its focus is on curbing harassment in the workplace, Be Fierce is broad in scope and looks at an array of fixes. “It’s parenting,” she says. “It’s getting more men involved, it’s changing policies within the workplace, it’s setting the right tone, it’s encouraging more people to come forward, it’s changing our laws. … It’s a lot of different things.”
The book provides what she calls a detailed “playbook” for anyone faced with sexual harassment at work. “The main thing,” Carlson points out, “is knowing that you are not alone. My advice to people in the workplace is, first and foremost, if this is happening to you today, tell somebody. You need to make sure that you have gathered evidence. You need to make sure that you document and keep it at home. You need to make sure that you tell at least two trusted colleagues. You also need to call a lawyer.”
She believes that human resources departments aren’t always the best places to report incidents. “Now, it’s not because the people there aren’t nice people,” she adds. “It’s because I believe there’s an inherent conflict of interest when the perpetrator could be the one signing the paychecks. You have to remember who you are beholden to as an employee.”
Her advice to company leaders is to change the company culture to “zero tolerance.” “Above all,” she says, “the tone needs to be set from the top down. We need to be advocating that company leaders have employee meetings where they say, ‘The buck stops with me, and we’re not going to tolerate this. And if it’s happening to you, you come to me.’ It’s something that needs to be part of the dialogue and not this taboo topic that nobody wants to address.”
Carlson says this means changing the way that companies conduct sexual harassment training, bringing in independent parties to mediate cases and encouraging witnesses to come forward. “We are right now seeing women and men having the courage to come forward to tell their stories,” she says. “But what will really be the big changing point will be turning enablers and bystanders in the workplace into allies.”
Taking the fight to Capitol Hill
Another key change, she believes, will be the removal of forced arbitration clauses, which Carlson claims are included in the contracts of 60 million American workers, often without their full understanding. These clauses predetermine that workplace disputes will be settled behind closed doors. She is advocating for their removal, and it’s a fight she has taken to Congress; she was successful in putting together a bipartisan bill ending forced arbitration in sexual harassment and discrimination cases.
As Carlson points out, “[Employees are] giving up their rights to an open-jury process, and many times they have no clue that they’re even signing that. And that’s what I’m trying to change on the Hill, to add more transparency to this entire issue.”
Carlson’s other recent projects have included establishing a Gift of Courage Fund to award empowerment grants to young women and girls, and the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative, a program for participants to learn more about domestic violence and harassment, and how to find a voice both civically and politically.
Asked whether her newfound chops as a workplace-rights advocate is a permanent career shift, Carlson laughs and says she’s eager to dip her toes back into television.
“I’ve worked my whole life—I don’t know anything else,” she smiles. “But gosh, my life really has worked in so many mysterious ways. I mean, I started as a concert violinist and ended up as Miss America. I never expected that! I thought I was going to be a lawyer, then I ended up in TV. And how could I ever imagine I’d be doing this? So, who knows?”
Gretchen Carlson’s inspiring women
Carlson draws inspiration from women who have risen to the height of power—and from one closer to home. “For me,” she explains, “it’s about teaching our kids that seeing is believing, and when you see women in top positions, you believe you can also get there.
“I feel a bit forlorn that we haven’t been able to elect a female president in America yet. But I believe it will happen in my lifetime.”
Here are the women who inspire her.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor since 2005
Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the United Kingdom, 1979–1990
Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan,
1988–1990 and 1993–1996
Queen Elizabeth II. “She had to make these amazingly difficult choices early on in her life, and I feel like she’s been a great role model for people to see a woman in a high position.”
Karen Carlson. “[My mother] told me every day that I could be whatever I wanted to be, and that was essential for building the fierce determination that underlies everything I do.
I think it’s an incredibly important message to give to kids, adolescents and even adults. To remind us that with a lot of hard work, we are capable of doing whatever we want.”
Roshan McArthur is a freelance writer in California.