Gretchen Carlson turns spotlight on harassment victims outside of Hollywood

Posted January 14, 2019 5:05 p.m. EST

— Gretchen Carlson is choosing to be positive.

It's Friday when she calls for her interview about her new Lifetime documentary premiering Monday night, and the end of a long week marked by a mixed bag of news for anyone holding the #MeToo or Time's Up shields in the battle for gender equality.

The good news has been really good: Susan Zirinsky, a 46-year veteran of CBS, became the first woman appointed to run the network's news department. The rest -- like ousted Pixar chief John Lasseter's new job at Skydance -- is decried by activists, including Time's Up.

Still, Carlson says, she prefers an optimistic view of the progress that has taken place since her own sexual harassment case and the heightened awareness of the #MeToo movement.

"I look at it more big picture," she says. After all, women are finally being listened to, accusers are admitting and apologizing and some have seen consequences.

"If you examine how now, when women come forward, their cases are handled completely different than the way in which my case was handled when I came forward...that's huge," she says.

In 2016, Carlson went public with accusations of sexual harassment against then-Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.

"As irritating as it is that alleged perpetrators can make a comeback quickly, the way I like to answer that is: What about all the women out there who aren't working anymore simply because they had the courage to come forward?" she asks. "Really, we should be talking about hiring back all these women who didn't do anything wrong who are no longer working, and yet we sort of seem to have this fascination with whether or not these alleged perpetrators who are men will make comebacks."

It's a good point and just one of the many she's been trying to stay vocal about in the aftermath of her case, which left her with a $20 million settlement and an insomnia-inducing desire to help other women, particularly ones like those who reached out to her in the days after her experiences became news.

"When I started hearing from all these women across our country, a lot of them basically told me that they couldn't, literally, afford to come forward because they were single moms working two jobs just to make ends meet, and they were being harassed," she says.

"Gretchen Carlson: Breaking the Silence" is part of Carlson's ongoing mission.

The women featured in the documentary have varied career backgrounds, from the fast food industry to Spanish-language media. They all share accounts of surviving workplace sexual misconduct.

"For every story that I feature in the doc, there's about 10,000 other people that are just like them, if not more," Carlson says.

As Carlson sees it, "these women's stories are as important, if not more important than famous Hollywood actresses."

Over a six month time period, the documentary shows several of the women turning their experiences into activism.

Watching survivors evolve into advocates, Carlson admits, puts a smile on her face.

She's done the same. Carlson became a vocal proponent for the elimination of forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts. The clauses, she and many experts say, allow for more sexual harassment to take place undetected.

The film, too, puts an emphasis on employers who are falling short of protecting their employees.

"What I hope people will get out of the end of this doc is that companies need to really be introspective and they need to sit down internally and say, are we doing enough? Because the reality is that most are not," she says.

The ways Carlson and some of the women featured in the documentary have chosen to fight gender-based harassment are different, but rooted in the same survivor-fueled determination.

"Once you have gone through this kind of experience, it's almost like you don't have to say anything when you meet another person who has, because you have this shared understanding of not only the pain and the emotions that come with it, but the surviving aspect of it," she says. "I think that that's why they felt trust in me to share their stories and be so open and upfront."

Hollywood will soon take on Ailes's ouster in two separate projects, for which Carlson is not allowed to be as open about.

Due to the conditions of her settlement, she is unable discuss the upcoming Showtime limited series starring Naomi Watts as Carlson or the film, in which Nicole Kidman is set to play her. She boils her hopes down to one word, however: accuracy.

"All I can hope for is that they do their research and that they in that they get the story right," she says. "Oftentimes, when you do movies, they kind of say that they're dramatizing it. And when something is this emotional and raw and real and took so much courage to do, I hope they don't dramatize too much. I hope they stick to the facts."

Another fact: Carlson isn't as peeved about the casting as some were led to believe from a now-deleted tweet.

"It's nothing against Nicole Kidman or Naomi Watts. They're amazing actresses, and the idea that if they even know who Gretchen Carlson is unbelievable," she said with a laugh. "Talk about a surreal thing. But, you know, any dialogue that I've ever had about this was always with the intention that I want accuracy."