Yesterday, news broke that reporter and anchor Megyn Kelly was leaving Fox News to move to NBC. Now, Fox is left without a big-name, female, prime-time anchor, and without anyone who has any history of being willing to stand up to Trump. This is politically notable for obvious reasons, but it also has implications for how we think about gendered workplaces and why women don’t stay.
To be clear, examining why people don’t stay in a workplace is not necessarily the same thing as examining why people go elsewhere. Specifically, the inquiry on why people don’t stay looks at what things are malfunctioning in a workplace to such a degree that, say, women with alternatives chose to go elsewhere. This becomes particularly interesting when we consider that reports on Kelly’s transition indicate that Fox was willing to pay Kelly more than $20 million to stay, that other networks could not match that pricetag. So what can we learn? Did Fox lose Megyn Kelly because of gendered hostility and retaliation?
Kelly, who had long been a high-profile name in conservative circles, became the center of more wide-spread attention in 2016 thanks to three things: 1) Donald Trump, 2) Roger Ailes sexual harassment, and 3) her book tour. Of course, the book tour really focussed on points one and two.
Tying those three things together neatly was an appearance Kelly made on CBS This Morning back in November. After talking about Kelly’s book, the bullying and threats Kelly had experienced from Trump and his supporters, and the harassment Kelly had suffered from Roger Ailes, host Gayle King closed with the pointed question, “And you plan to leave Fox when?” This question neatly called out what everyone could see: things were not good in Foxland for Kelly — notable in light of the fact that Kelly’s six year contract with Fox was coming to an end.
This followed earlier reports in September that Kelly had “hired a powerhouse agent at CAA and began auditioning in earnest, and in public, for a job at another network. In interviews, she said her ambition was to become the next Barbara Walters and to host prime-time specials.” At the same time, those same fall reports documented how Kelly’s relationships with colleagues at Fox were deteriorating over her decision to come forward with her account of sexual harassment and her decision to raise criticisms and concerns about Trump. For example, Bill O’Reilly — an even bigger fish in the Fox pond — was quite open about his contempt for Kelly, berating her for being disloyal.
In the wake of yesterday’s news about Megyn Kelly leaving, Fox rushed to immediately frame her departure as being attributable to Kelly’s desire to spend more time with her children, rather than anything discussed above. Kelly, in a politic segment on her show, also characterized her departure as stemming from needing more “human connection” with her children — something she could achieve by anchoring a daytime show. No mention of the harassment, hostility, ideological differences, or a desire to do prime-time work was mentioned.
However appealing NBC’s offer might have been on the family front, Kelly was ripe for the professional poaching because of Fox’s failure to ensure that Kelly had a workplace that wasn’t hostile in a whole range of ways.
When Kelly talks about what she did to protect herself back when Ailes first harassed her, it’s clear that she was trained as a lawyer and also had good counsel. She sought out legal advice. She memorialized everything contemporaneously. She tried to explore whether other women had also been harassed. She reached out to someone in leadership she trusted. All things I’ve encouraged readers to do when facing similar circumstances.
Kelly’s own accounts also, though, record her original fear about what, if anything, she could say or do when Ailes attempted to coerce her into a sexual relationship. She notes the fear about not having power, about worrying that she would be “labeled as a troublemaker,” and about fearing the far reach of a boss who was “like a King.” In response to making a complaint, Kelly was told to avoid Ailes and that he was a good man. This “vouching for his character” approach is, far too often, the response of anemic management and HR structures. Based on her accounts, it does not appear that Fox did anything more. Had Fox leadership taken Kelly’s report seriously years earlier (and complied with its obligations under the law), they could have avoided having the scandal blow up in such a public way in 2016.
But more important to understanding Kelly’s inclination not to stay, Fox would not have primed the pump for how Kelly then experienced a different but equally-gendered form of hostility in 2016. After Kelly stood up to speak with other Ailes accusers in 2016, her colleagues turned on her. She was treated as a troublemaker, shunned and ridiculed. Rather than vouching for her character, her colleagues impugned it. And make no mistake, when Fox allowed powerful senior leaders to brand Kelly disloyal for speaking openly and honestly about harassment, they allowed unlawful retaliation.
This matters. Especially when you consider another piece of advice I’ve given which Megyn Kelly echoes — that others in similar circumstances to seek out a highly-placed woman, a woman of power in the organization, who could advise them well or could go to bat for them. For Kelly, in 2016, she was that highly-placed woman. She had no one else to turn to for support or advice in the face of the retaliatory hostility she was facing. Fox had failed her, even when she was their star. She was abandoned.
Is it really any surprise that she would decide to leave? No. Maybe NBC did have a better — albeit less lucrative — offer. But Fox lost Kelly when they repeatedly failed to step up and curb the discriminatory harassment and hostility to which she was subjected.