Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back

by Gretchen Carlson

Clock Icon 16 minute read

AUTHOR’S NOTE

This book contains information obtained from many women—some very well known, others just private citizens trying to live their lives and do their jobs. Many women contacted me to share their stories, and I interviewed countless women concerning their experiences in the workplace. I have included information obtained from many of these conversations. To preserve the privacy and anonymity of the persons involved, I have often changed the names and certain other information (such as occupations, job titles, or the locations where the alleged harassment occurred) that could be used to identify specific individuals.

As is often the case when relating events of the past, the information recounted herein is based largely on the recollections of the interviewees. The recounting of these stories, often in the women’s own words, serves to show just how pervasive sexual harassment has been (and continues to be), and to underscore the enormous toll it is taking on American businesses and workers.

This book is intended to provide general information and inspiration to its readers. Neither the author nor the publisher is rendering legal or other professional advice. If you believe that your rights have been or are being violated, you should consult with an employment attorney, because laws vary depending on where you live or work.

 


 

INTRODUCTION

Are You Done Taking Sh*t?

Go back to Minnesota & Shut the Hell Up!!

Gretchen needs to let it go. She brought it on herself!

So what if someone said a couple things to you? Grow up, move on and stop whining.

Gretchen, your show sucked! You are a dumb old never-has-been!

Hope nobody hires you, Skank!

Gold digger MILF!

I wouldn’t stand with you or next to a disgraceful person like you!! I hope people will walk away & let you suffer, Bitch!!

Welcome to my daily Twitter feed. Imagine having to swallow this kind of hate with your morning coffee! After many years on TV, I wasn’t a stranger to mean tweets. I used to laugh at them, even read them out loud on the air. But now the meanness was like being stabbed with a dagger, and it seemed to have no purpose except to hurt me. It didn’t surprise me that one of these peoples’ favorite weapons was to attack my age or looks: “Minimally talented, over the hill,” crowed one critic. “Old and washed up,” another. Many tweets were typical of what other women who’ve experienced harassment say they hear all the time: “You’re too ugly to be sexually harassed… you wish you looked that good!” “Desperate old cow.”

Hmm… so only hot young babes get sexually harassed? Only fame-seeking, money-grubbing old hags complain? In the convoluted logic of the Twitterverse, my experience couldn’t be valid because I wasn’t young enough or pretty enough. And even if I were, my experience couldn’t be valid because I opened my mouth and spoke up for myself, making me a bitch. I resisted the impulse to reply to the male tweeters: “Does your mother, wife, or sister know you’re talking trash to a woman on social media?” I didn’t know what I would say to the female tweeters—there were plenty of those too.

One morning, as I was hunched over my iPad scrolling through a fresh batch of vitriol, I glanced up and saw my thirteen-year-old daughter, Kaia, watching me.

“Mom, you have a funny look on your face,” she said. “What are you reading?”

“It’s nothing, honey.” I smiled, but Kaia’s radar was finely attuned to my moods. She was, unfortunately, very aware of what was going on in her mom’s life. She knew that it wasn’t nothing.

Our children really see us. They hear us. And when I took on this fight, I had my children and their future foremost in my mind.

Many people have heard about the sexual harassment case I filed against my former boss. That lawsuit was settled, and there are things I can’t discuss about it. That’s the nature of a settlement. But when it was all over, I decided I wasn’t ready to shut up and sit down.

Labor Day 2016 became a marker in my life—not just the first day of school for my kids, but a change in the way I’d done things for the last twenty-five years.

Every year on the day after Labor Day, my husband, Casey, and I have made sure that one or both of us drives the kids to school and drops them off. (They’re now at ages where they don’t want us to come in!) This tradition has also involved Casey and me then driving into the city together to go to work. But 2016 was, of course, different for me. As we made our way into the city, I was actually going in to get a haircut. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t going to work to report the news.

Instead—on this day—I was the news.

We got into the city an hour before my appointment, so Casey dropped me off and went on his way. With an hour to kill, I walked into a nearby nail salon to get a pedicure. There I was, all by myself in the salon.

During that hour, the news about me started trickling out; first one report, and then dozens and dozens more. I began to read about myself on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram as if I were having an out-of-body experience. I sat there with tears streaming down my face. The nice lady helping me out was probably wondering what the heck was wrong with me. But she didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell.

My life had become surreal. But then—as if nothing was happening—I still needed to get my hair cut. Once in the salon, the young woman sitting next to me at the hair washing basin—a total stranger—looked at me and simply said two words, “Thank you.” I felt more tears welling up again. My eyes burned. It wasn’t like I was sad. I’m not sure I can even describe the emotion. I just knew my life would never be the same. At that moment I knew the issue of sexual harassment was bigger than just my story. So I decided I would write a new, powerful, real story, for me and for so many others.

My decision to take on the issue of harassment didn’t happen instantly. It took me a while to get my head straight. At first, encounters with friends and colleagues were painful and awkward. People didn’t know what to say to me. I didn’t hear from some people I’d expected to hear from. On the other hand, I received supportive letters and emails from people I hadn’t heard from in decades.

Those were difficult days as I tried to regain a sense of equilibrium and purpose. I have always been a forward-looking person. When I was a child, participating in violin competitions, my beloved grandfather always told me that I needed failure in order to really appreciate success. He wanted me to see that the best of life wasn’t found only in winning, but also in picking yourself back up and thriving after times of disappointment. So, when my job at Fox ended, I immediately began thinking about what I could do next.

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Something amazing started to happen: the floodgates opened. 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. Time and again, women wrote about how they had been holding it all in, but now felt they could talk to me.

Late into the night, I sat at my computer and immersed myself in the lives of women I had never met, but now felt I knew more intimately than my neighbors. Some of my own misconceptions were shattered. It’s easy to assume that sexual harassment flourishes in certain industries. There is the “Mad Men” culture of advertising. There is the sometimes female-unfriendly culture of sports. There are industries, such as fashion, modeling, and beauty pageants, where some degree of objectification is commonplace.

But my mailbox showed a more pervasive reality. These women belonged to virtually every profession and walk of life: police officers, teachers, oil rig operators, musicians, Wall Street bankers, saleswomen, sports executives, army officers, journalists, accountants, engineers, waitresses, TV broadcasters, soldiers, tech workers, lawyers, secretaries, and corporate executives.

The truth is much more startling and complex than I had realized. You can be sexually harassed if you’re pretty or not pretty, if you’re strong or not strong, if you’re in advertising or trucking, or are a college student. This book isn’t just about women in the workplace being harassed and standing up to power. It’s about our teenagers too, who go off to college full of hopes and dreams and far too often have them stripped away in one unexpected act of harassment or violence. It’s so important to set the right mind-set early on in our young girls (and boys), to prepare them and let them know they have a voice, and, most important, to teach them how to use it. From young to middle age, girls to boys, women to men—we all need to learn how to be fierce.

Remember this: Harassment isn’t something you ask for. You don’t have to smile or “bring it on.” You don’t have to say a word. You can be dressed in a short skirt or army fatigues or hospital scrubs. And in spite of the lingering doubt and guilt that most women feel, it’s not about something you did. It’s about what somebody else did to you.

Years and even decades after the fact, many of the women who reached out to me were still shell-shocked and disbelieving. Such as Carmen, a flight attendant supervisor whose boss often sat in meetings detailing the porn he’d watched the night before while drawing penises on his notepad. When Carmen finally got up the nerve to complain to human resources, she was called “crazy” and fired. In spite of her sterling record, she was never able to find work in the industry again. No one stood up for her. “It was like whiplash,” she said. “One minute I was happily employed in a career I loved. The next minute, I was out.”

Silence is the most powerful weapon of the harasser. When women are not allowed or enabled to give voice to their experiences, they disappear. “When I was fired, I stopped existing,” one woman told me. “Life went on at my company as if I’d never been there.”

I heard variations of this story many times, and I’ve seen how haunted these women are, how often they play back the events in their minds and wonder if they did something wrong or could have acted differently. Even a young enlisted woman soldier who was raped in her trailer by two men who broke in at night remembers her only thought being, “Am I going to get in trouble?”

Their experiences are shocking—they’re worse than anything you can imagine. But the words also resonate. Like the mean tweets on my phone every day, they have the power to wound, destroy, and silence women. Whoever said, “words can never hurt you” didn’t hear these words: the broker whose coworkers called her such vulgar names I can’t print them here; the popular executive who became an “agitator” when she reported a colleague to Human Resources; the woman whose harasser defended himself by saying, “You think I’d hit that?”; the young girl whose nickname was “Bat Shit”—for “bat shit crazy.”

Ugly stuff.

Repeatedly in my conversations with women, they used the term “old boys’ club” to describe their work environments. It’s a notion I thought was retired long ago. But no: There’s the old boys’ club in banking, the old boys’ club in movie production, the old boys’ club in retail, the old boys’ club in hospital administration. It exists in Congress, in the military, in scientific research, in the restaurant industry, and in law enforcement—the references are across the board. I started to wait for it when I conducted interviews—the moment when the term “old boys’ club” would show up. It happened almost every time.

We all know that it’s a “man’s world” in certain work environments, but the culture exists even in industries that are traditionally geared to women and families, such as retail, nursing, and food services. A 2016 study published in the Harvard Business Review noted the insidious nature of a male-dominated work culture, saying, “Some men use the subjugation of women as a way to relate to other men and prove their masculinity, while reinforcing women’s lower status. At the same time, women who want to be part of the high-status group may play along with sexual harassment because they do not want to be further alienated from the high-status group (men). Women may even start to adopt the same behaviors as men to fit in and be ‘one of the guys.’ This creates an irony that women may be ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment to gain access to the ‘boys’ club’ while men are using sexual harassment to keep women out.”

This analysis reveals the circular trap in which women often find themselves when they try to thrive in male-dominated environments. Changing the culture of harassment is not a simple choice between being strong and being weak, or getting along versus standing up for yourself. Time and again, I have been blown away by the courage many women express in demanding to be heard and fighting for respect in their workplaces. Against unbelievable odds—shame, retaliation, even lost jobs and careers—women are refusing to take it anymore. They are on the front lines of a long war, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it.

As any lawyer or adviser who deals with these issues will tell you, the personal and professional cost is often very high. I’ve heard stories about women being fired for complaining, being pushed out when they rejected their boss’s advances, and being sidelined for not playing along with coarse and inappropriate behaviors. And most of them have had to walk away from their careers. The attorney Lisa Bloom, who has represented women for over thirty years, put it to me bluntly: “Of all the women I know who have publicly complained, not one is working in her chosen career today.” Think about it: that is a terrifying reality. “Unfortunately, there’s a stigma to complaining,” Bloom said. “These women are labeled as troublemakers. It sticks.”

After my experience with harassment, as the weeks went on, I learned that every woman has a story. At least, I never met one who didn’t. My own story, which was widely covered in the media, opened up a conversation in homes and workplaces across America. People came up to me in restaurants and airport lounges, plopped right down and started talking. My own friends and colleagues told me things they’d never revealed before. Some opened up to their husbands for the first time about past experiences.

A friend who had been married for twenty years described walking the dogs with her husband one evening, and blurting out the story of how she’d been grabbed and almost raped by a boss early in her career. Her husband was stunned. “Why did you never tell me about this before?” he asked. “I had no idea.” She told him that she’d considered it a blot on her character, and didn’t want him to know about it.

Another friend confessed that she had “forgotten” or blocked out an experience that had happened decades earlier, when she was just starting her career in sales. Her manager had backed her up against a wall in a conference room one day and kissed her. She’d pushed him off and walked away. She never even considered reporting it. “I thought it went with the territory,” she said. In fact, she was proud of herself for handling the incident so coolly and unemotionally.

After I left Fox, I was interviewed by ABC’s Amy Robach for a one-hour 20/20 special. Accustomed to being the one asking the questions, I turned the tables and asked Amy if she had ever experienced sexual harassment. She was visibly jarred; the emotion of a memory flashed across her face. “Yes, I have,” she admitted. The look she gave me suggested that she had never talked about it before. Hers and other women’s stories are now demanding to be told.

Statistics support anecdotal evidence about the low rate of reporting, even today. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 70 percent of women who experience sexual harassment at their jobs don’t report it for fear it will cause negative repercussions, both personally and professionally. The most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that there are more than 43,000 workplace rapes and sexual assaults a year. But women’s advocates say that this number vastly underreports such crimes, because many victims are afraid to speak up or are discouraged from coming forward.

You cannot experience sexual harassment without suffering psychological wounds. This isn’t just my opinion. I know, because I too have experienced and suffered from it. Multiple research studies have shown serious effects that include depression, PTSD, sleep disorders, and in the worst cases, suicide attempts. The hardest hit are young women, whose confidence and self-esteem are especially fragile. One study showed that for a teenage girl, a single incident of sexual harassment could have repercussions well into her thirties.

It’s not just the harassment itself that has psychological consequences. The stress of keeping such a bitter secret is tremendous. Like the friend I described earlier, many women I’ve spoken with never even told their husbands. After I appeared on 20/20, a woman wrote me, saying, “I was in the US Air Force from 1977 to 1984. I was drugged and raped by three military police officers. This has plagued my life. I am now a 100 percent disabled veteran with PTSD. It has been so hard. I can’t forget what happened.” So, nearly forty years after the incident, this woman was still suffering from an assault that ruined her life.

A daytime TV star was fired after persistent harassment halted her career at the age of thirty-five. She still feels the shock twenty years later. “I became reclusive. I never got my speed back,” she told me. “I was no longer the smart, bubbly person people saw on TV. I was damaged.”

Still another woman spoke of grieving for her lost youth—the seven years she spent during her twenties taking a sexual harassment case to court. “All my friends were getting married, planning lives,” she told me. “I was in court. Normal life was taken from me.”

Sexual harassment is traumatic. This is confirmed by studies measuring the psychological effects of harassment, whether it is verbal or physical. A 2014 study from the University of Mary Washington found what it called “insidious trauma”—small traumas happening every day—summarizing, “Women become caught in a Catch-22; if they speak out about how they are treated, they are likely to be labeled ‘overly sensitive,’ and if they say nothing, they have to live with these experiences without the chance of social support or vindication. The ambiguous and subtle nature of sexual objectification, particularly the experience of body evaluation, can make this experience of discrimination difficult to acknowledge, discuss, and cope with.”

In my home office, I began to print out the stories of women who contacted me. Soon they formed piles on my desk. I didn’t know what I would do with them, or what I could do for them, but the voices filled my mind and my dreams. They took me out of my own problems, and set me squarely at the center of a cultural battle. One day, surrounded by the evidence of a crisis that cried out to be addressed, I decided to do something. It was a familiar feeling. My life has always worked in mysterious ways, and it has gone in different directions from what I thought I was going to do. Now, it seemed, I was about to dive into something new once again. I decided to start a movement—a preposterously bold idea. But if not me, who would pick up this cause? Who would speak up for these women and give them a voice?

I began to reach out to the women who wrote to me. They were pretty surprised to hear from me directly, never having expected their emails or Facebook posts to be read or responded to. That had always been their experience—a complete absence of response, and the overwhelming sense that no one cared. When they wrote to me, they were dropping their stories into a deep wishing well, with no expectation that they would ever be received.

On the phone and in person, their testimony was long, painful, and often tearful. It was very emotional for me too, because I was still going through my own struggles. I forced myself to take breaks, walk my dog, close my eyes, and breathe. I needed to be sharp and focused—to really listen. I’ve been interviewing wounded, traumatized people for twenty-five years, but I’ve never felt the way I did when speaking with these women. Theirs were preventable tragedies, deliberately perpetrated in our culture. I couldn’t stand the thought that a new generation of girls, including my daughter, might have to face similar indignities.

But I also heard evidence of plenty of grit, and I was proud of their courage and determination. I began to see that together, we could do something about it and create a meaningful fight for women’s rights in our time. I had made a personal choice that I wasn’t going to take it anymore—but that wasn’t the end of the story.

Being bold exacts a price of its own, as evidenced by those nasty tweets. After I left Fox and launched my public movement, I learned that shame is a powerful force. There’s no logic to it, no fairness, and no explanation. The standard notions of right and wrong don’t apply. Here’s the way it works: You are shamed… therefore you are ashamed.

The shame extends beyond harassment to assault and rape, and is experienced even by women who are powerful. It wasn’t until 2017 that Jane Fonda finally summoned the courage to talk about her experience. In an interview with The Edit magazine, she said, “To show you the extent to which a patriarchy takes a toll on females; I’ve been raped, I’ve been sexually abused as a child, and I’ve been fired because I wouldn’t sleep with my boss, and I always thought it was my fault; that I didn’t do or say the right thing.” That’s Jane Fonda! The last person you’d think would be full of shame. I’m sure it cost her a lot emotionally to finally speak out at the age of seventy-nine.

Beth, who was an executive in a large health services company, admitted to me that she could never bring herself to lodge a complaint over sexual harassment, although she experienced it from both bosses and coworkers. It felt shameful to her. Only when she learned that she was being paid $25,000 less a year than her male peers did she speak up. It felt safer to her to complain about money. “I was too scared to be labeled when the discrimination was sexual in nature,” she confessed. “I am now sorry for that. If I (and others) had the courage back in the 1990s, maybe it wouldn’t be happening to other women today.”

But now there’s a loud rumbling in the culture—a sense that it’s time to stand up and turn the floodlights on the injustice women often suffer by being objectified, made to feel like victims, forced to settle for less, and expected to tolerate being ignored, unheard, and marginalized. Together, we can end the harassment, if we decide we’re not going to take it anymore.

This book is a rallying cry for all women who want to take control of their lives and own their personal power. It’s a warning that we will not be underestimated, intimidated, or held back. We will not be silenced by the ways of the establishment or power. We will tell the truth. We will be fierce.

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