“Don’t mess with us.”
The all-powerful Roger Ailes, 76-year-old media mogul, has stepped down from his throne at the cable news giant he founded 20 years ago. This resignation took place after former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed an explosive sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes, her longtime boss.
Shortly after Carlson came forward ― claiming that Ailes propositioned her sexually and then fired her after she rebuffed him ― other women at Fox spoke up too. In fact, a number of women inside the company have reported unsavory encounters with Ailes. But the nail in the coffin was driven by Megyn Kelly, and it was her powerful position at the network that allowed her to do this. Just a few years back, no woman at Fox had that kind of power.
Ailes has repeatedly denied all charges.
As the former anchor’s lawyers stated, “Gretchen Carlson’s extraordinary courage has caused a seismic shift in the media world. “We hope that all businesses now understand that women will no longer tolerate sexual harassment and reputable companies will no longer shield those who abuse women. We thank all the brave women who spoke out about this issue.”
The takeaway from Ailes’ fall from grace is clear: Women are a rising force in American society. True, they’re still vastly underrepresented in the top echelons of power ― only a small number run the biggest companies or hold office at higher levels. And of course women still earn only 79 cents on the male dollar.
But times are changing faster than most could have predicted. We’ve got one woman nominated for President; another running the Federal Reserve. And even at a conservative network like Fox that has female anchors sit at glass desks so viewers can ogle their legs, women’s rise cannot be tamped down.
Twenty-five years ago, when a woman named Anita Hill first brought the problem of sexual harassment to the nation’s attention, accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of offensive and inappropriate behavior, she was smeared as a “scorned woman” and “erotomaniac.” This was a pretty common reaction at the time. When a woman claimed that a powerful man had harassed her, she was ridiculed, called hysterical, and accused of being a lying, promiscuous vixen.
Oh how times have changed. Just ask Bill Cosby.
We’ve come a long way from the 1990s, when Anita Hill’s credible claims against Clarence Thomas got some air time but still left a powerful man in his top-of-the-world position. No more, said Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post.
Sex discrimination is still widespread in the workplace, but it’s certainly not considered OK anymore ― particularly when it comes to the public’s attention.
“[Carlson] made her allegations public, which was rare,” said Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the University of British Columbia. “She rallied sentiment. I think that pressured Fox. I don’t think Fox is more enlightened.”
No one can predict if Ailes’ resignation will translate into a meaningful cultural shift at Fox; in fact, several prominent anchors have publicly spoken out in his defense.
But his departure undoubtedly indicates that women’s discrimination claims are finally being taken seriously. “It’s great progress,” said Berdahl, an expert on harassment and discrimination. “There’s a lot more normalization of women’s voices. Women are legitimate equals. Someone you take seriously.”
In fact, Berdahl has taught MBA students for almost 2 decades and has noticed in recent years a significant shift in how male business students view sex discrimination. Even ten years ago, the subject was dismissed by those students. “There was definitely this attitude that this was not a serious thing and you’re shrill to tell us these things,” she said. “Men would say openly, ‘Oh, I would never hire a mother, she would be unreliable.’ Those comments were common, or they would laugh when sex harassment was brought up.”
Now more of Berdahl’s male students are dating women with careers and career aspirations ― and they take the side of their partners.
Today, 40% of families are headed up by women. As Berdahl noted, this translates into a dynamic were women are powerful people that you respect. “That didn’t used to be the case,” she said.
“So when we come to work with that template ― a powerful woman in our home ― and someone in the workplace speaks up and she’s female, we’re more likely to believe her.”