It is hard to decide what lessons women should draw from Fox News’ reluctant, slow-motion ouster of Bill O’Reilly.
Will they feel emboldened to report sexual harassment now that a powerful man has been held accountable after longtime accusations and hushed-up settlements?
Or is this an example of a company dragged into action after a financial calculus that the revenue he produced could not compensate for the reputational damage, the loss of advertisers and the potential thwarting of 21st Century Fox’s global expansion?
The answers aren’t necessarily incompatible. Outright cheerleading is clearly premature, and many women remain skeptical that they will be heard or protected if they come forward with tales of what they’ve had to endure in the work force. But it may be that the power women wield outside their own places of employment helps even the game.
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Research shows that most women who experience sexual harassment don’t report it, primarily because they fear retaliation, and with good reason. Sexual harassment is interwoven with power imbalances, and those who experience it are usually subordinate in rank, status and importance to a company’s bottom line. The impunity of powerful men has long been a deterrent to women taking action.
Women at Fox News and beyond have watched as the company has lurched toward pushing out two men integral to its success: Roger Ailes, its former chairman, and O’Reilly, who were both accused of sexual harassment.
As Alisyn Camerota, a CNN anchor, said Thursday: “It was Roger Ailes’ fiefdom. He was the king. There was no higher authority that you could ever go to, and there was harassment. And I tried, in my own way, to raise the flag and to talk to people about it. I went to my superiors to talk to them about it and there was certainly a feeling of ‘this is Roger, what are you going to do? Who are you going to go to?’”
Ailes and O’Reilly have denied the accusations. In both cases, the sons of Fox’s founder, Rupert Murdoch, had to coax their father to act even after internal investigations turned up more evidence of a toxic culture for women at the company. Female employees reported being pressed to trade sexual favors for advancement and endure explicit sex talk, groping and more. Two settlements with O’Reilly took place after the company had publicly pledged it would no longer tolerate such behavior.
It’s also notable that women are scarce at the senior levels of Fox News, on or off the air. Rupert Murdoch took over leadership of Fox News after Ailes was forced out. Megyn Kelly, its most visible female anchor, left the network partly because of O’Reilly’s public condemnations of women who had complained about sexual harassment, and because she grew skeptical that Fox’s culture would change. The replacement for O’Reilly’s show is hosted by a man, Tucker Carlson, and most of the other shows in the prime-time lineup feature men, with the exception of Kimberly Guilfoyle and Dana Perino, still outnumbered by men on “The Five.”
Judging from more than 950 comments posted on Facebook after The New York Times asked women for their assessment of O’Reilly’s departure, many doubted that this heralded a new era for Fox or would encourage more women to report sexual harassment.
“I’m glad pressure was put on the network but no … this does not show men in power will be held accountable. It shows that Fox was losing money,” Elizabeth Gibbons Woodhouse wrote. “This was a financial decision. Accountability would have been thoroughly investigating the multiple complaints, not just allowing O’Reilly to throw money at them to keep them quiet.”
And Mairead O’Grady commented: “The issue of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace will not be resolved until we have a diverse work force — at all levels of the corporate world. There is little hope that claims of mistreatment will be handled fairly with the astonishing imbalance of power between men and women at work. When you know that reporting an issue puts your career at risk, exposes you to possible retaliatory actions, and potentially could sideline you at that organization, you think twice about whether it’s worth it.”
Some women defended O’Reilly, sensing a liberal conspiracy and saying the accusations were unproven. Others said they remained discouraged that a man who boasted of forcing himself on women had been elected president.
“This isn’t really a win for women,” said Lynn Thompson. “This was done to satisfy advertisers, not because it was the right thing to do. Men in powerful positions will continue to taken advantage of women and women will be seen as liars if they report it. We elected a man who admitted to assaulting women, and much of the public doesn’t care. Kind of speaks for itself.”