Female anchor fired, sues CEO for sexual harassment and retaliation

The item leapt off my newsfeed, grabbing my attention. Not merely because of the celebrity of former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson and the notoriety of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, but because sexual harassment in the workplace was on my radar.

because of sex_MECH_01.inddI was reviewing Gillian Thomas’s book, Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work. Three of the ten cases involve some form of sexual harassment, and all of them are about discrimination against women.

Gillian Thomas is a senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project and she specializes in sex discrimination. I immediately reached out to her for her reaction. Who better to call when the media world was lighting up the wires with the scandal at Fox?

Thomas, though in France at the time, was all over the story. “A case like this illustrates that sexual harassment can happen to any woman, even if she’s successful and famous,” Thomas replied in an email.  

On July 6, Carlson accused her boss, Roger Ailes, powerful CEO of the Fox network, of sexual harassment and retaliation. In the lawsuit she filed against him, she claimed that Ailes fired her because she had refused his advances and had complained of discrimination in the newsroom. Ailes has denied the allegation.

“We don’t know much yet about what Fox News did or didn’t know about Ailes’s alleged behavior, but it’s not unusual for someone of his prominence to get a free pass from management,” Thomas said. “A Gretchen Carlson is worth a lot less to a company like Fox than a Roger Ailes is.” Thomas observed that “it’s long been obvious that Fox likes its female talents’ necklines low and hemlines short . . . Where a brand trades so heavily on women’s sexuality and bro humor, it’s no wonder that sexism could have been happening off-camera, too.

“People may think behavior like this is a throwback to Mad Men or 9 to 5,  but it still happens all the time. Sadly, Carlson’s suit follows a time-worn pattern: supervisor propositions subordinate, subordinate refuses, supervisor makes subordinate’s life a misery.”

If Carlson wins her suit, she will owe a debt to the unsung heroines Thomas celebrates in Because of Sex. These were ordinary working women, mostly poor, often single mothers and minorities, in low-paying jobs. They were not activists; they just wanted to work on the same terms as men. They wrought change through the courts with their tenacity and courage.

With inexperienced lawyers, they were David battling Goliath— big corporations with fancy, expensive attorneys. Their cases challenged “It’s just the way things are” and overturned precedents, each one sharpening and amplifying the meaning of discrimination. They had the courage to press suits against their abusive employers though they knew the odds were stacked heavily against them. Despite losing their jobs, they persevered through years of multiple trials and setbacks, all the way to the Supreme Court. Their victories led to new laws that rectified some of the injustices borne by working women. Unfortunately, few of them benefited personally—Thomas calls them “sacrificial lambs”— or were able to see the significance of their victories for future female employees.

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