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‘Breaking the Silence’ gives voice to untold #MeToo stories

The #Metoo movement has largely been a story of the famous — with stars including Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino and Salma Hayek receiving much attention regarding their victimization at the hands of Hollywood moguls whose crimes were long-covered-up.

“Breaking the Silence” — airing Monday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime — shines a spotlight on women who are not famous, who don’t have access to the media or money to hire a high-powered attorney to fight the people responsible. It’s hosted by Gretchen Carlson, who sued Fox News Channel for sexual harassment and received a $20 million settlement. In the special, Carlson speaks to minimum-wage employees who work at McDonald’s, for instance.

“Right after my story broke in July, 2016, I started hearing from these women and writing to them,” says Carlson, 52. “It was a pervasive epidemic that was crossing all lines.”

When Carlson worked out a production deal with Lifetime to document some of these womens’ stories, she wanted to focus on “the women who’d never heard their stories told, who worked in lower-level positions, who couldn’t come forward.” Her journey took her to Louisiana, Missouri, California and her home state of Minnesota.

‘What you have to remember about being sexually harassed is that you don’t know how to act or what to say.’

Twenty-two year old single mother Tanya Harrell of New Orleans was sexually harassed by two male colleagues in a New Orleans branch of McDonald’s. After being told by a female supervisor that she was “showing sex appeal,” Harrell filed a complaint in May 2018. Kim Lawson, 25, of Kansas City, Mo. was also harassed at McDonald’s while Kristi Maisenbach, 22, of Rancho Cordova, Calif. filed a complaint against McDonalds in 2016 — after her shift manager sent her a text offering her $1,000 for oral sex. Maisenbach’s female supervisor put her on janitorial duties.

In all three cases, the women were blindsided. “What you have to remember about being sexually harassed is that you don’t know how to act or what to say,” Carlson says.

Harrell and Wilson were helped by Fight for $15, a movement that campaigns for minimum-wage increases at McDonald’s and has expanded its campaign to include charges of sexual harassment. “They’re becoming activists in their own way,” Carlson says. “They went from feeling lost and vulnerable to feeling empowered.”

One of the sobering takeaways from “Breaking the Silence” is the huge disconnect between the human resources policies of many companies and the reality of employee behavior.

“Companies for so long have been able to say, ‘Of course we have a zero tolerance policy’ and then they just walk away … Something isn’t working,” Carlson says.

The key to achieving respect is effective training, Carlson believes. “The kind of training I know I’ve gone through isn’t working. We have to flip it 180 degrees,” she says.

“We should be empowering people to come forward and [empowering] the bystanders who are too scared for their own jobs.

“They know what happens to women who come forward.”

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