By Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S
Last week, Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of the Fox News media conglomerate, was sued for sexual harassment by former anchor Gretchen Carlson. In the intervening days, at least six other women have come forward with similar stories of sexual harassment at the hands of Mr. Ailes. Meanwhile, Ailes’ allies have rallied around him, alleging sour grapes from the recently fired Carlson.
I won’t sit here and pretend I know the truth about the Ailes/Carlson situation, or about the allegations made by the other six women. I can, however, tell you that as a sexual disorders treatment specialist who has worked with the US Military, the Catholic Church, and other similarly patriarchal groups, attempting to educate organizational leaders about the proper handling of gender and sex related issues, I have seen this type of “sweep it under the rug to protect the powers that be” attitude far too often.
Consider, for example, the armed forces. As I have stated many times previously, sexual complaints in the military are primarily handled not by the military justice system but by the complainant’s commanding officer, whose chief goals are unity, efficiency, and unquestioned obedience, and this system facilitates all sorts of misguided responses to serious sexual misbehavior. At times, incidents are simply ignored, with the victims transferred to another unit or discharged altogether. Other times, victims are blamed and ostracized but left in place, where more abuse can take place. Only rarely are the perpetrators prosecuted or punished.
The hierarchy is similar in the Catholic Church, where organizational goals seem to outweigh individual transgressions, even when those transgression pile up. We have also seen this in the sports world (a la Penn State football), the entertainment industry (a la Bill Cosby), and all sorts of other male-dominated entities. And these are just the abuses we hear about.
The simple truth is sexual misconduct occurs regularly in male-driven organizations, both large and small, all over America. Certain men in power view female (and sometimes male) subordinates more as sexual objects than valued employees. These self-entitled, painfully out-of-touch men say things like, “It would be really good for your career if we had sex.” Or maybe they sit too close, too often, while touching a subordinate in ways that are far too personal, all the while giving work-related instructions and pretending that nothing disagreeable is occurring. Then, if both the work directions and the spoken/unspoken sexual directions are followed, the employee might advance through the company. If not, the employ might fail to advance, be exiled to the proverbial typing pool, or simply get fired.
Female employees can also be covertly harassed and abused, simply by working in an environment that condones, accepts, and even embraces sexual innuendo and objectification, dirty jokes, and other forms of misogyny. Because that is how the game is played, even in our supposedly gender aware 21st century culture.
Admittedly, the majority of men in today’s workplace treat female coworkers with the respect and dignity owed to any person. However, as a mental health professional I tend to see and treat the problems. And more than 25 years of experience with this tells me that the more powerful a perpetrator is within an organization, the more self-entitled and disengaged from day-to-day social norms he typically gets, and the more likely his loyal troops are to rally around him (perhaps thinking their allegiance will advance their careers).
Another common issue I’m seeing in the Ailes/Carlson fiasco is that the victim kept quiet for a very long time. As usual, people are questioning this fact. “Why,” they ask, “did Gretchen Carlson only file her sexual harassment lawsuit after her contract was not renewed by Fox?”
The answer to this question is simple, and any woman who has ever been harassed or otherwise abused in the workplace can give it: The perpetrator is the woman’s boss, and the woman either really wants or really needs her job. For instance, Carlson was a former beauty queen who wanted to legitimize herself by working in serious television news. Her position at Fox was something she worked very hard for, and likely much of her ego and self-worth was wrapped up in it. So she put up with Ailes and the misogynist environment he fostered to keep her job. Her lawsuit states that she even accepted unwarranted demotions and pay cuts just to stay in the game. Then, after she was fired and there was nothing else to lose, she filed her lawsuit and went public. And if these allegations are true, good for her.
But what about the woman with a crummy job that does nothing for her self-esteem? Why does she stick around and put up with the offensive language, the pats on the rear, the subtle and sometimes blatant come-ons and implications of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”? My guess is that she does it because she’s got two kids, a mortgage, and a husband who just got laid off. Or she does it because her parents can no longer care for themselves and their social security doesn’t cover their needs. Or she does it for any number of other reasons that all boil down to the fact that she needs a job, and good jobs are hard to come by these days.
Sadly, most of the women who are harassed in the workplace never get around to filing a lawsuit or even quitting their jobs and looking for another. Most often they keep quiet because they’re afraid they won’t get another job that pays as well, or another job at all. It is only when a situation becomes utterly intolerable that women typically walk away and consider secondary options. And even then it tends to only be a woman who can afford, financially, to not work for a few months or more (while she finds a new job and/or the lawsuit resolves).
If you feel you are a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace—in other words, if your boss reminds you of the Roger Ailes described in Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit—there are numerous laws that protect you, and numerous organizations willing to help you. You don’t have to silently abide the abuse. Useful resources can be found at the following websites:
- The Advocates for Human Rights: stopvaw.org/Sexual_Harassment
- American Association of University Women (AAUW): aauw.org/what-we-do/legal-resources/know-your-rights-at-work/workplace-sexual-harassment/
- Feminist Majority Foundation: feminist.org/911/harass.html
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm
- National Women’s Law Center: https://nwlc.org/resources/sexual-harassment-workplace/
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician, Rob has served as a subject expert for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including “Sex Addiction 101,” “Sex Addiction 101, The Workbook,” and “Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men.” For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.