With all of the sexual harassment allegations surfacing in the news, it's appropriate that Nicole Stewart, founder of the storytelling series Oral Fixation, devoted the show Friday, Nov. 3, to women who have taken big risks.
The theme for the program is “Jump Off a Cliff,” and former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson — who famously exposed her boss, Roger Ailes, then Fox New' CEO, for sexual harassment in 2016 — is headlining.
Stewart said she hadn't planned for the show to feature just women, but after reviewing submissions, it felt like the right way to go.
"Think back to the Greeks and the power females had," Stewart says. "We have it as women, and we’ve been shamed for it for too long and been underestimated for too long. It doesn’t have to show up in the same way in every person, but we all have it.”
“Gretchen has really inspired me,” she continues. “Reading Gretchen’s book and realizing what she came from — an incredibly strong family unit with a warm and nurturing relationship with her mom. She went to Stanford, she was a violin prodigy and she won Miss America — that’s power. Real, beautiful, true power.”
We talked with Carlson about her trip to Dallas, her thoughts on recent sexual harassment allegations in the news and how she decided to come forward with her story.
How did you get involved with Oral Fixation?
I was fascinated with their whole storytelling mission because obviously I have an amazing story to tell. Jumping off a cliff is something that so many of us face in our lives. How do we find the courage and the bravery to do that?
I wanted to be part of an inspiring event and bring my story to life to encourage even more people to come forward with their own acts of bravery, whether it’s about sexual harassment or abuse or any other injustices in their lives.
One of the really important things to me is that the fund I set up after my case broke, called Gift of Courage, that I wanted to underwrite the event, I felt that much about it. My fund has been providing financial grants to organizations all across the country over the last year — organizations that empower women to have a voice and empower boys and girls to grow up with the same amount of courage and bravery to take on the world like I did and so many others have.
How did you decide to come forward and write a book about the sexual harassment that you faced?
Courage building is a process, especially when you’re taking on some of the most powerful people in the world in a certain industry. It’s not something you just decide overnight to do. I would hearken back to my upbringing in Minnesota and a mom who told me every day I could be anything I wanted to be. That helped to build a base for standing up for myself and speaking up for myself. Even with that, filing my lawsuit was the scariest moment of my life and the most excruciating choice of my life and the most difficult professional decision.
Why is that? Up until now, women were called liars, troublemakers and bitches, and not believed, so who in God’s name would want to do that to themselves and implode their career? That’s why people don’t come forward; that is how we’ve allowed this scourge of a problem to continue.
When I realized that my 25-year career in television that I had worked so hard for was going to come to an end at my place of employment and not because it was my choice, I determined if I don’t speak up and do this, who will? I did it for all the other women who have never been heard, and I did it for my children and other people’s children, so the next generation won’t have to face the same thing.
Did your employment end as a result of the lawsuit?
It was related. I can’t go into that, but you’re welcome to look it up. My complaint is public online. You can see all the salacious details.
The most undersold part of sexual harassment cases and stories is the retaliation people face after they have the bravery to come forward. With the thousands of women who contacted me afterwards, it all rings true for their stories as well. You’re demoted, not given plumb assignments anymore, transferred to a different division — eventually, in many cases, fired. And the harasser gets to stay on the job. It’s absolutely outrageous.
After my story broke, women came forward in every single profession, from waitresses, to bankers, to teachers, to members of the military; it’s everywhere. And almost all of those women have never worked in their chosen profession ever again. That is horrifying.
That’s why I wanted to write the book: to give them a voice and to provide a playbook for women in Chapter 4, who find themselves in a similar position. And now, to move the ball forward, how do we get rid of this? How do we change corporate culture, and how do we change laws on Capitol Hill? Which is what I’ve been working on over the past year: to take the secrecy out of these arbitration clauses which are in so many employment contracts now.
People don’t even know they have these clauses, and then when they find themselves in a dispute — and no one starts a job thinking they’re going to find themselves in a dispute — but when you do, you realize you’ve given up your Seventh Amendment right to go through an open jury process, and you go to this secret chamber called arbitration, and nobody ever knows about it.
So if it’s behind closed doors, it’s more biased? And becomes about who has a more powerful legal team behind them?
Exactly. And added to the mix, in arbitration, you don’t get the same amount of witnesses. There’s not the same kind of depositions. There are no appeals. Only 20 percent of the time, the employee wins. And here’s the kicker: In most cases, the company picks the arbitrator. Is that fair?
That’s what I’m trying to change on Capitol Hill, to get a bill forward to change this. The biggest thing is that it’s a secret proceeding. Hypothetically, a woman is being harassed on the job, she files a complaint, immediately the company puts it into arbitration, and she’s probably fired, right? Because she’s taking on the company. And guess what, nobody ever knows what happened to her. She can never tell anyone she went to arbitration or what happened in arbitration. And the harasser gets to stay working, and the company covers it up. It’s not a one-off case. It happens everywhere.
Until my story broke, people thought we had taken care of this issue in our culture. We never heard about these stories, but the reason we never heard about them is because they were all going to a secret chamber.
What do you think about all of the Harvey Weinstein allegations?
The allegations are horrific. More important, all the enablers and the cover-uppers, and the shut-up-the-victimers [who] allowed him to carry on like this for three decades — that is outrageous. But you know what? That’s happening in companies all across America, not just with Harvey Weinstein.
The positives to all these stories coming forward: Every day, we’re hearing a new one. It’s like a tsunami, and that is amazing and powerful and positive. If I had anything to do with giving those women courage when I was alone and breaking my story, and now they’re coming out in droves — this is how we make change. This is how cultural shifts happen. That is the positive side of all these ugly revelations. More women are saying “me too” and “enough is enough,” and we’re feeling no shame in coming forward and transferring all the shame where it belongs, on the harassers.
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You mentioned Chapter 4, what women can do if they find themselves in a similar situation. Can you tease what’s in the chapter?
Yes, it’s my 12-point plan. I’ll give you the top three things:
1. Consult a lawyer first before you do anything. You have to because every state has different laws and a statute of limitations, etc.
2. Document, document, document. Keep a journal and every piece of evidence, and take it home.
3. Tell at least two trusted colleagues what’s happening to you so that you’ll have witnesses. As long as we live in a he-said, she-said culture, forget it. You need to have somebody that will stand up and say, “Yeah, she told me this on Dec. 5, 2015.” Somebody that can defend you.
I have nine other incredibly great points in the book, and I encourage everyone to pick up Be Fierce. It’s important to mention that all of the proceeds go back into my fund. And the book is not just for sexual harassment; it’s for any way in which you feel you’re being put down. It’s an inspirational book to be fierce about anything in your life, to stand up and speak up and have the courage to tackle it.
"Jump Off a Cliff" is at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, at Hamon Hall, 2403 Flora St. Tickets, $40, are available at attpac.org.