Sexual harassment used to cost women their careers. That may be changing.
SAN FRANCISCO — It's been more than a quarter century since Paula Coughlin blew the whistle on drunken aviators who sexually assaulted women at the Las Vegas Hilton during the 1991 Tailhook convention.
But this former helicopter pilot says she's still paying a steep price for speaking out. The ensuing uproar over sexual abuse in the Navy didn't just ground her military career. It grounded her career in the civilian world, too.
"I have been told by headhunters that I am unemployable," says Coughlin.
She's not alone. From Kellie Boyle, who says she lost a major contract and her career in political communications after she rebuffed a sexual advance from Roger Ailes, to Janelle Asselin, who gave up a promising career in the comic book industry, women who publicly accused men of sexual misconduct in the workplace told USA TODAY they suffered debilitating aftershocks while their harassers escaped with few, if any, consequences.
Former legal secretary Rena Weeks says she never worked again after winning her sexual harassment lawsuit against the Baker & McKenzie law firm in 1994. She says partner Martin Greenstein groped her and made crude remarks, grabbing her breast while dropping M&M candies in the pocket of her blouse.
Her legal win — $7.1 million, later reduced to $3.5 million — sent such shudders through the law business that her lawyer warned her firms would blacklist her. So she gave up her career and moved to Seattle with her CPA husband.
Even in the midst of the nation's ever-widening sexual harassment and abuse scandal, she says it's hard to believe that women will fare much better today than she did.
"You are still going up against the old boys network," she says.
Yet, for the first time, men are the ones being ousted from their jobs by a new wave of women who are bypassing the legal system and going straight to the court of public opinion, armed with screenshots, diary entries and the testimony of friends and family. In the process, they're developing a modern-day survivor's manual.
Engineer and entrepreneur Niniane Wang says she went public with allegations that venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck tried to sleep with her when they met to discuss business only after spending dozens of hours making a case against him. She gathered evidence that Caldbeck had a history of making unwanted sexual advances to female founders seeking business advice or funding, encouraged other women to speak publicly about their experiences and contacted Caldbeck's limited partners.
Wang and five other women accused Caldbeck of making unwanted sexual advances during professional interactions. Rather than being shunned, Wang has been invited to speak at major industry conferences. Last month her company, Evertoon, was acquired by Pokémon Go creator Niantic Labs. Caldbeck, on the other hand, was forced to resign from running his own firm, Binary Capital, after the story broke in June.
"We focus a lot on courage but the behind-the-scenes work is equally important," Wang says. "If you have a plan and enough evidence, it is also easier to muster up the courage."
The primer on how to report sexual harassment came from Susan Fowler. The software engineer took a big risk last February when she went public with her story of mistreatment at ride-hailing company Uber.
In a blog post, Fowler said she showed screenshots of chat messages in which her direct supervisor "was trying to get me to have sex with him" to human resources.
"Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part," she wrote.
The response to her post shifted the balance of power in male-dominated Silicon Valley. Chief executive Travis Kalanick was forced out after mounting reports of dodgy business practices and a toxic corporate culture. And today Fowler has book and movie deals as well as a gig editing a tech publication at San Francisco start-up Stripe.
It was former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson who first showed women that it was possible to take on influential men and live to tell about it. She accused Roger Ailes, the late chairman of Fox News, of sabotaging her career after she rejected his sexual advances.
When Carlson confronted Ailes about his conduct, she says he told her: "I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago." She again turned him down and nine months later he ended her career at Fox News, according to her lawsuit. The suit, which Fox News' parent settled for $20 million, contributed to the ouster of Ailes, the man credited with making Fox News into the most-watched cable channel.
Today Carlson has a new agenda: Combating sexual harassment. She recently published Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back and she's lobbying Capitol Hill to end forced arbitration agreements in sexual harassment cases.
Though few believe reporting harassers will no longer derail women's careers, Carlson says: "I do think that we are at the most positive point in our history."
The American workplace is clearly starting to reckon with the widespread scourge of sexual harassment. A majority of Americans — 64% — say it's a serious problem, up from 47% in 2011, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Still many women say that, even with the steady outpouring of #MeToo revelations, we have not reached a tipping point. Despite social media shaming and some temporary fallout to their careers, alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault have not faced any criminal consequences.
"Ultimately, the thing that will bring the most to change our culture is the one I've been writing and talking about for a long time: having more women with more power," Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a Facebook post Sunday.
Nearly all the women in the Washington Post-ABC News poll — 95% — say men who sexually harass women usually get away scot free. The women don't.
Asselin, who started reading comic books when she was 10, says she had her dream job at DC Comics. She worked as an associate editor on Batman titles and nurtured the talent of women in the male-heavy comic book industry.
She says she became demoralized when complaints she and others made to human resources about DC Comics editor Eddie Berganza in 2010 were ignored. Last month DC Comics fired Berganza after former colleagues told BuzzFeed he had forcibly kissed or groped them in the 2000s. Berganza declined to comment.
"I don't keep up with DC Comics really at all, mostly because it's hard," says Asselin who has moved back to her hometown of Omaha, where she works for a worker's comp insurer. "On the one hand, I love the characters. But it also brings back so many memories. I could still be working on this stuff, shepherding along these titles, coming up with ideas, if I had stayed."
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Nearly 30 years ago, Kellie Boyle says she lost a major contract and her career in political communications after she rebuffed a sexual advance from Ailes, a powerful figure in Republican politics at the time who had worked for presidents Nixon and Reagan.
During a trip to Washington, D.C. to sign a major contract with the National Republican Congressional Committee, she met Ailes for dinner. After, Boyle says he offered her a ride and an arrangement.
"I can help you," she says he told her in the car. "But if you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys," naming women who had agreed to his terms. She says he expected her to service other men as well. "You may have to give a blow job to others every once in a while," she says he told her.
Desperate to get out of the car, she told him she would think about it but rebuffed the offer the next time they spoke. As a result, Boyle says she was placed on a "no hire" list. She lost out on the contract and had to switch to corporate work. Today she and her husband have a public relations and digital marketing firm in Virginia. The National Republican Congressional Committee declined to comment. Ailes denied all allegations against him before his death in May.
"I had been a political volunteer as a kid. I studied political communications. I had worked 90-hour weeks for six years on campaign after campaign. That's where I thought my future was and in a heartbeat it was gone," Boyle says. "Not only was I not getting the contract, I was not getting hired by anybody."
According to a study from Oklahoma State University sociologist Heather McLaughlin and others, about 80% of women who’ve been harassed leave their jobs within two years.
Life often gets worse. Women who cannot find jobs in their chosen field change industries, sometimes taking lower paying and ranking jobs or reduced work hours. Financial stress rockets within two years, comparable to other crushing life events such as a serious injury or illness, incarceration or assault, McLaughlin's study found.
Coughlin can relate. She was one of a handful of women to pilot the heavy-lift helicopter, the CH-53 Sea Stallion, and, like her aviator father, Paul Coughlin, looked forward to a long career with the Navy.
She had risen to the rank of lieutenant when she accompanied her then boss, Rear Admiral Jack Snyder, to Las Vegas for the annual convention of the Tailhook Association, a fraternity of aviators. She says she and other women were attacked in a crowded third-floor hotel corridor where, over three nights, Navy and Marine Corp aviators grabbed, pinched and fondled their breasts and buttocks in what was called a "gantlet."
Coughlin's complaints to top brass led to 140 aviators being investigated for assaulting 83 women. She won $5.2 million in a lawsuit against the hotel for failing to provide adequate security and reached a $400,000 out-of-court settlement with the Tailhook Association. The secretary of the Navy, H. Lawrence Garrett III, was forced to step down and several other high-ranking officers were pushed into early retirement. But none of the cases led to a court martial.
Coughlin says she was called a man hater, slut and a disgrace to the Navy. She was handed awful work assignments and treated like a pariah. "There was an ongoing investigation, so that became my job, which essentially ended my flying career," she says.
She resigned from the Navy and eventually opened a yoga studio in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Asked what got her into yoga, Coughlin replies: "Thinking I was going to kill myself."
At first, Coughlin tried to disappear from the public eye. An appearance in "The Invisible War," Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary about the epidemic of rape in the military convinced Coughlin she still had a job to do.
Today she serves on the board of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military. And the phone calls still come regularly from women in the military and in corporate America, struggling with the agonizing decision whether to come forward.
"I used to say that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time in that hotel hallway," Coughlin says.
"Now I believe I was in the right place at the right time," she says, then pauses. "And I wouldn't wish it on anyone else."
Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn