There are a few things you might feel after reading Gabriel Sherman’s exhaustive accounting of the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News under Roger Ailes.
You might feel your jaw tense with a familiar kind of anger when you learn that Ailes allegedly told former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson that if she agreed to have a sexual relationship with him, “then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.” Or that when Carlson tried to confront the harassment, she said she was called a “man hater” who “needed to get along with the boys.”
You might feel disgust somewhere high in your throat when you realize that, as Sherman reported in New York, while Ailes was pushed out along with a few consultants, contributors, and assistants, Fox’s executive chairman Rupert Murdoch continues to reject calls for a “wholesale housecleaning.” (In fact, two of Ailes’ close allies were promoted.)
But you’d be wrong if you felt that the rampant harassment that started with Ailes and was enabled for years by his management team could only happen at a conservative media behemoth.
According to a recent survey of 2,235 working women, one in three reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. This sort of harassment is hidden in plain sight in science journalism and government agencies. It happens at law firms and in toll booths and inside homes where domestic workers often lack even the appearance of official recourse. Women are harassed in fast food chains, agricultural jobs, and the halls of Congress.
If you read these stories as a series of chapters in a long collective history of women's experiences of degradation while trying to earn a living, a number of through lines appear.
Fear of retaliation is a big one. Gretchen Carlson told The New York Times that she was intimidated by the culture at her former employer. “Everyone knew how powerful Roger Ailes was," she said.
Ailes, who is now reportedly advising Donald Trump, was the most powerful man at one of the most powerful news networks in the country. But less powerful men have weaponized their authority all the same.
A woman who was raped by her supervisor at a California lettuce company reported to Human Rights Watch that he told her that she “should remember it’s because of him that [she has] this job.” (At another farm in California, four immigrant women reported being fired after standing up against a supervisor who said another woman "needs to be fucked.")
Women who operate toll booths for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reported experiencing an unspoken culture that condoned harassment and encouraged women to endure it with a smile. (“You’re in a little cage and you’re exposed to whatever comes, whether it’s good, bad or nasty,” one woman told the Times.)
And this is one of the reasons that sexual harassment often goes unreported. Women, particularly women who are living in poverty or are otherwise in precarious positions, fear the financial repercussions of losing a paycheck.
A 2016 survey from Bankrate.com found that 63% of Americans reported that they did not have enough in savings to cover a $500 expense. A 2015 report from Pew Charitable Trusts found that families in the lowest wealth quantile—basically, households pulling in less than $20,000 a year—could survive just nine days on their liquid assets.
Even women in comparatively well-compensated work face pressures to stay silent. Sometimes the fear of career death in claustrophobic industries (like, say, journalism) is enough to keep women quiet about the harassment they've experienced. Silence may seem a better option than the sounds of hundreds of professional doors being closed in your face.
This is, in part, why so many women said nothing while a popular blog editor at Scientific American repeatedly harassed them. Was it really worth it to risk alienating a powerful editor? (One of the women who went public, Kathleen Raven, wrote about navigating innuendos from male gatekeepers in her field: "But to remove myself from the situation would have meant leaving my chosen profession, science writing.")
That is the particular feeling of helplessness you get when confronting professional machinery that is much bigger than you. And because the scales are tipped against them, so many women learn to live with a weird taxonomy of harassment—a scale of acceptability that many women have to navigate during their careers.
Was that comment your editor made about "regretted orgasms" over a holiday lunch a forgivable case of over-sharing, or part of a pattern? Was feeling your boss's gaze move from your eyes to your chest and back to your eyes in the split-second it took you to sit down an awkward misstep, or something you should talk to HR about? (This is only if you work somewhere that has institutional mechanisms to report harassment in the first place.)
With weak employment protections for women facing harassment at work and a culture that generally casts women who don't laugh appeasingly at sexist jokes as irredeemable ice bitches, there are few good options on the table.
People were understandably angry when Donald Trump, Roger Ailes' rumored new boss, said that women should change jobs if they're being harassed. It was a statement that showed a thick disregard for the lives and experiences of people who don't look like him, a familiar look for the Republican nominee.
But it was also troubling because, in a way, it rang true: many women do feel, with good reason, that their options are to grin and bear it or leave.
As we learn more of the stomach-turning details of the Fox harassment case, it's probably important to keep this in mind. With all eyes trained on the network and the looming possibility of institutional change, women like Gretchen Carlson are the rare ones. After years of punishing silence, they're finally being heard.