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Is Roger Ailes Lurking at Your Firm?

The Careerist

August 22, 2016

Roger-ailesWere you truly that shocked about the allegation that CEO Roger Ailes hit up Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson and other female employees for sex?

I think that might depend on how old you are. Though Ailes's alleged behavior lacked finesse even by the antiquated standards of the 1980s, I bet many women in the pre-Antia Hill era experienced or witnessed some icky stuff that would be considered unthinkable today. (Ailes resigned recently, after the network hired Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison to investigate the allegations.)

I know I've experienced my share as an associate—like the partner who kissed me on the lips after a night out with clients. And so have some of my peers—like my friend Cheryl who was regularly followed home by a partner after work.

Did any of us complain? Of course not. Back then, there was no recourse. No women or diversity groups at firms. Not even an HR manager.

Now that we live in a much more enlightened age, is the heavy-handed type of harassment that Ailes allegedly practiced still alive?

"From everything I've heard from women in the current workplace, the answer is, thankfully, no," says Helen Wan, the author of The Partner Track, and a former lawyer at Paul Weiss and Time, Inc. "Not a lot of people seem to encounter that level of behavior any more."

Maybe not in Big Law, agrees Kamee Verdrager, who's suing Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, for sexual discrimination. "I think the days of the movie 9 to 5 and patting someone on the butt out in the open are over," she says, "but I also think there is a huge disparity along socioeconomic and educational lines.

Which is not to say that sexual harassment is dead in polite places like firms or corporations; it's just a lot more subtle. "Lawyers are so cover-your-ass that they would never say something that they could be nailed on," says a female associate at a law firm. "But some are still creepy." And "creepy," chauvinistic behavior still goes unpunished, particularly if it's a partner who's engaging in it, she says.

Part of the reason bad behavior by powerful men continues is that women are reluctant to report it—and for good reason. Stanford Law School professor Deborah Rhode writes in Harvard Business Review:

Research in What Women Want indicates that only about 5-15 percent of victims formally complain of harassment and only 3 percent of cases end up in litigation. Major barriers to reporting include guilt, shame, fears of retaliation, concerns about loss of privacy, and doubts that an effective response will be forthcoming.

Gretchen Carlson faced criticisms and retaliation when she raised her accusations against Ailes. She was labeled a bitter employee. Plus, prominent female Fox personalities lined up to support Ailes, rebutting her accusations. Carlson ultimately prevailed because so many other women joined in levying similar charges against Ailes, including Fox star anchor Megyn Kelly, writes Rhode.

So what happens if you're the lone voice? Well, the odds are much more daunting. Verdrager, for one, has been fighting Mintz Levin for over seven years.

Remember Donald Trump's response to the Ailes mess? Asked about what should be done if his daughter Ivanka were sexually harassed at work, Trump answered that he thought she should get out and find another job. 

That response was criticized for putting the onus on the woman to bury the hatchet and move on. It was certainly unfair, and it missed the point.

But is it a more practical response?

 vchen@alm.com

Comments

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The sad, but truthful reality...it probably is better to move on. I do not think women still have the voice they thought they would in the workplace or the voice they have is often not heard. Progress has been made...it's time to make more.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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