Those are just a few of the horrific stories that I heard from women over the last year, as I’ve been investigating workplace sexual harassment. And what I found out is that it’s an epidemic across the world. It’s a horrifying reality for millions of women, when all they want to do every day is go to work.Sexual harassment doesn’t discriminate. You can wear a skirt, hospital scrubs, army fatigues. You can be young or old, married or single, black or white. You can be a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent. I heard from so many women: police officers, members of our military, financial assistants, actors, engineers, lawyers, bankers, accountants, teachers … journalists. Sexual harassment, it turns out, is not about sex. It’s about power, and about what somebody does to you to try and take away your power. And I’m here today to encourage you to know that you can take that power back.
On July 6, 2016, I jumped off a cliff all by myself. It was the scariest moment of my life; an excruciating choice to make. I fell into an abyss all alone, not knowing what would be below. But then, something miraculous started to happen. Thousands of women started reaching out to me to share their own stories of pain and agony and shame. They told me that I became their voice — they were voiceless.And suddenly, I realized that even in the 21st century, every woman still has a story.
Like Joyce, a flight attendant supervisor whose boss, in meetings every day, would tell her about the porn that he’d watched the night before while drawing penises on his notepad. She went to complain.She was called “crazy” and fired. Like Joanne, Wall Street banker. Her male colleagues would call her that vile c-word every day. She complained — labeled a troublemaker, never to do another Wall Street deal again. Like Elizabeth, an army officer. Her male subordinates would wave one-dollar bills in her face, and say, “Dance for me!” And when she went to complain to a major, he said, “What? Only one dollar? You’re worth at least five or ten!”
After reading, replying to all and crying over all of these emails, I realized I had so much work to do.Here are the startling facts: one in three women — that we know of — have been sexually harassed in the workplace. Seventy-one percent of those incidences never get reported. Why? Because when women come forward, they’re still called liars and troublemakers and demeaned and trashed and demoted and blacklisted and fired. Reporting sexual harassment can be, in many cases, career-ending.Of all the women that reached out to me, almost none are still today working in their chosen profession,and that is outrageous.
I, too, was silent in the beginning. It happened to me at the end of my year as Miss America, when I was meeting with a very high-ranking TV executive in New York City. I thought he was helping me throughout the day, making a lot of phone calls. We went to dinner, and in the back seat of a car, he suddenly lunged on top of me and stuck his tongue down my throat. I didn’t realize that to “get into the business” — silly me — he also intended to get into my pants. And just a week later, when I was in Los Angeles meeting with a high-ranking publicist, it happened again. Again, in a car. And he took my neck in his hand, and he shoved my head so hard into his crotch, I couldn’t breathe. These are the events that suck the life out of all of your self-confidence. These are the events that, until recently, I didn’t even call assault. And this is why we have so much work to do.
I was working so hard to prove that blondes have a lot of brains. But ironically, one of the first stories I covered was the Anita Hill hearings in Washington, DC. And shortly thereafter, I, too, was sexually harassed in the workplace. I was covering a story in rural Virginia, and when we got back into the car,my cameraman started saying to me, wondering how much I had enjoyed when he touched my breastswhen he put the microphone on me. And it went downhill from there. I was bracing myself against the passenger door — this was before cellphones. I was petrified. I actually envisioned myself rolling outside of that door as the car was going 50 miles per hour like I’d seen in the movies, and wondering how much it would hurt.
Number one: we need to turn bystanders and enablers into allies. Ninety-eight percent of United States corporations right now have sexual harassment training policies. Seventy percent have prevention programs. But still, overwhelmingly, bystanders and witnesses don’t come forward. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review called it the “bystander effect.” And yet — remember 9/11. Millions of times we’ve heard, “If you see something, say something.” Imagine how impactful that would be if we carried that through to bystanders in the workplace regarding sexual harassment — to recognize and interrupt these incidences; to confront the perpetrators to their face; to help and protect the victims. This is my shout-out to men: we need you in this fight. And to women, too — enablers to allies.
Number two: change the laws. How many of you out there know whether or not you have a forced arbitration clause in your employment contract? Not a lot of hands. And if you don’t know, you should,and here’s why. TIME Magazine calls it, right there on the screen, “The teeny tiny little print in contractsthat keeps sexual harassment claims unheard.” Here’s what it is. Forced arbitration takes away your Seventh Amendment right to an open jury process. It’s secret. You don’t get the same witnesses or depositions. In many cases, the company picks the arbitrator for you. There are no appeals, and only 20 percent of the time does the employee win. But again, it’s secret, so nobody ever knows what happened to you. This is why I’ve been working so diligently on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to change the laws. And here’s what I tell the Senators: sexual harassment is apolitical. Before somebody harasses you, they don’t ask you if you’re a Republican or Democrat first. They just do it. And this is why we should all care.
Number three: be fierce. It starts when we stand tall, and we build that self-confidence. And we stand up and we speak up, and we tell the world what happened to us. I know it’s scary, but let’s do it for our kids. Let’s stop this for the next generations. I know that I did it for my children. They were paramount in my decision-making about whether or not I would come forward. My beautiful children, my 12-year-old son, Christian, my 14-year-old daughter, Kaia. And boy, did I underestimate them.
The first day of school last year happened to be the day my resolution was announced, and I was so anxious about what they would face. My daughter came home from school and she said, “Mommy, so many people asked me what happened to you over the summer.” Then she looked at me in the eyesand she said, “And mommy, I was so proud to say that you were my mom.” And two weeks later, when she finally found the courage to stand up to two kids who had been making her life miserable, she came home to me and she said, “Mommy, I found the courage to do it because I saw you do it.”
Here’s my one last plea to companies. Let’s hire back all those women whose careers were lostbecause of some random jerk. Because here’s what I know about women: we will not longer be underestimated, intimidated or set back; we will not be silenced by the ways of the establishment or the relics of the past. No. We will stand up and speak up and have our voices heard. We will be the women we were meant to be. And above all, we will always be fierce.