Shortly after former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson sued Fox News CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, numerous other women reportedly contacted her attorney to say that he had also propositioned them for sexual favors in exchange for career advancement.
On Saturday, six of those women shared their experiences with Gabriel Sherman at New York magazine to tell their stories. Sherman has some experience with this subject, he notes in the article: His 2014 biography of Ailes included interviews with four women who said Ailes “had used his position of power to make either unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate sexual comments in the office.”
The stories Sherman published span a 25-year period from the 1960s through 1989. Two of the women gave their real names: Kelly Boyle, 54, a former Republican National Committee field adviser who says Ailes propositioned her in 1989; and Marsha Callahan, 73, a former model who says Ailes made her pose for him in a garter belt and stockings and propositioned her while she was interviewing for The Mike Douglas Show, where Ailes was a producer at the time.
The stories are disturbing and follow a similar pattern: Ailes telling women that they have no choice but to sleep with him, as well as some of his friends, if they want to advance their career. When they say no, Ailes retaliates by not contacting them again for a position — or even spreading the word to others not to hire them, as Boyle alleges.
One woman says she was 16 when Ailes exposed himself to her during an audition for The Mike Douglas Show. “I was a kid — I’d never seen a man’s privates before,” she said.
Ailes’s outside counsel, Barry Asen, released a statement saying that the allegations, “all 30 to 50 years old, are false,” and that Carlson and her lawyer “are desperately attempting to litigate this in the press because they have no legal case to argue.”
Powerful men often get away with routine harassment or assault because their victims are afraid to speak out
One of the ex-employees who spoke to the Daily Beast said there is a "conspiracy of silence" on this issue because Ailes’s victims are afraid to speak out.
"The problem is you don’t want to come forward because you don’t want to be personally and professionally destroyed," she said. "You don’t want to bring down Roger Ailes’s wrath on your head."
She added that Ailes is far from the only male executive who abuses his power and influence for sexual purposes. "Television is really a difficult, arbitrary, and competitive business, and you don’t want to give TV executives a reason to say no," she said.
Though the accusations against Ailes are still unproven, this is an incredibly common story: A powerful man abuses and harasses his employees or mentees, but those employees or mentees are too afraid to speak out because said powerful man could ruin their career.
"Sexual harassment has financial consequences for women," said Patricia Barnes, an attorney and an expert on workplace discrimination. Victims of harassment are often driven out of their jobs, Barnes said, and our legal system makes it "almost impossible" for women to get justice for this, since court cases can take so long and cost so much.
If one person breaks her silence and comes forward, though, it can open the floodgates and embolden other victims to add their stories as testimony. That’s what appears to be happening here.
So it’s no wonder the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove speculates on whether Ailes could become the next Bill Cosby — a powerhouse media figure who has allegedly harassed or abused women for years, yet managed to escape public punishment for it until he was well into his 70s, when one public allegation led to another, and another, and another.
But serial abuse perpetrated by prominent men doesn’t just happen in high-profile industries like media and entertainment. It can happen anywhere: politics, academics, science and technology fields, and low-wage industries alike.
The key ingredient is usually an imbalance of power that leaves victims helpless — either too afraid of adverse consequences to speak out in the first place or too low-status compared with their abusers to be taken seriously if they do speak out. And even for high-profile women like Carlson, it’s a struggle to be heard and believed when society would prefer not to.
"When you think about abuse, and sexual harassment as a form of abuse, it's about power," Barnes said. "People who have power can obviously misuse it. And if an employer or society doesn't do anything about it, those people can continue to abuse their power."