Sexual-Harassment Settlements Keep Women Quiet While Shielding Powerful Men From Punishment

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Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

After Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against then-head of Fox News Roger Ailes, saying that she’d been sexually harassed by him for years, many more women spoke up about the ways their powerful bosses had taken advantage of them. In one particular instance, Laurie Luhn, a former Fox News booker who had been harassed by Ailes for nearly 20 years, came forward even after she had signed a settlement with Fox for $3.15 million, one that was intended to keep her quiet. Asked about breaking her agreement, Luhn told Gabriel Sherman, “The truth shall set you free. Nothing else matters.”

An article in the Times gets into the stickiness of this problem: When women decide to speak up about sexual harassment, they are often silenced or “muzzled” by NDAs, confidentiality agreements, and large settlements that are intended to shut them up permanently. Civil-rights lawyer Gloria Allred told the Times, “We’ve done thousands of confidential settlements. We do them every day. Complete confidentiality is usually the condition for a settlement. This can be very difficult for our clients. They want to be compensated and they want to tell the world about it. I tell them that’s just not going to happen.”

The reasons so few women come forward are numerous: career suicide, having their name permanently tarnished, not being believed, having people more powerful than them deny their allegations, and the potential result of no punishment for the abuser. Not to mention, women fear that they will lose their jobs if they say anything in the first place.

The Times also points out that “most employment contracts, including Ms. Carlson’s, also require any sexual harassment claims to go to arbitration, where all evidence and proceedings are secret.” The only way to stop this condition from appearing in contracts is through new legislation, and until then, settlements like Luhn’s likely won’t be going away. When powerful bosses behave badly in their organizations, the easiest option is to privately settle, allowing the bad behavior to continue and the accusers to be quietly ousted from their jobs.

But there is some hope, at least in the aftermath of the Ailes case. Catharine A. MacKinnon, a professor of law at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School, explained to the Times that the quick public downfall of Roger Ailes could inspire other women to take action against their work abusers, instead of simply settling. “There have been a lot of situations where you’d come to the conclusion that the law doesn’t matter, and that what does matter is power, the rule of force. Then something like this comes along and you realize the law does matter. A lot of women are going to take heart from that.”

Will the Roger Ailes Case Get Women to Speak Up?