Culture

Sexual Harassment Trainings Aren't Protecting Women at Work the Way They Should

Here are some suggestions.

Photo Credit: DefenseLawyerUT/ Flickr

After a long period of routine compliance, sexual harassment training seems to be on the minds of many organizations. By law, companies must institute at least two mechanisms to prevent sexual harassment within the workplace: first, implement a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment; and second, create procedures to address claims of misconduct.

Though many critics believe these federal compliance standards fall short of dismantling the power dynamics that contribute to sexual harassment, it is important to consider which parts of sexual harassment trainings actually do work. Otherwise, trainings become an empty gesture to meet a business’ compliance standards.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commision recorded 12,860 sex-based harassment allegations in 2016. This number is probably low given the fact that many victims do not report their cases. While harassment trainings are currently mandated in five states, another 22 states require public sector employees to go through them. However, this second step to addressing harassment has often been criticized for being ineffective or outdated, and ill-equipped at addressing workplace prejudices. In some cases, research has even found perceived cases of backlash, where trainings have devolved into scenarios of victim-blaming.

As Justine Tinkler, associate professor of the University of Georgia, explains, trainings have the ability to reinforce men’s perception that women are “emotional and duplicitous in the way that they both want sexual attention, but don’t want sexual harassment.” Tinkler’s comment shows how trainings can resurrect the misguided assumption that those who are sexually harassed “asked for it," effectively blaming the victim before condemning the inappropriate behavior of the harasser.  

There are relatively few studies that look at the effectiveness of sexual harassment trainings, and most studies that have been done exemplify their shortcomings. Many employers are unwilling to allow researchers into company trainings. Yet there are some reasonable guidelines for hosting effective trainings. Here are a few such ways these trainings could be improved.

1. Stop Reproducing Outdated Gender Stereotypes

Research has shown that sexual harassment trainings often reproduce gender stereotypes, and online tutorials are often guilty of reproducing the image of women in the role of secretary and subordinate, and men as the supervisor and abuser. The trainings tend to favor representations that are quickly digestible or recognizable, and as Tinkler says, “resembles a meal at McDonald's,” conjuring the fast, underdeveloped storylines that can glaze over the multiple real-life power dynamics that contribute to sexual harassment. 

Last year, a number of women criticized UC Berkeley after two highly esteemed academics stepped down due to numerous allegations of sexual harassment against them. This criticism was directed both toward the university’s historical attempts to hush up accusations, as well as its outdated sexual harassment trainings, which effectively undermined their cause.

Leslie Selizagar, a professor in Berkeley’s Gender Studies Program, called the trainings “laughable," while Lauren Edelman, a law professor at Berkeley, said the stereotyped scenarios actually caused participants to giggle "in a rather infantile or super sexist way.”

2. Make Sure All Employees of the Company Attend

Federal compliance standards lead some to believe that HR is keeping a record of employee participation in required trainings. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

NPR recently fired its top news editor Michael Oreskes amidst a growing number of sexual harassment allegations against him. While NPR has its own required training for all employees, the news source admitted that Oreskes did not complete his own training.

As Elaine Herskowitz, one-time co-author of the EEOC’s sexual harassment guidelines commented, “It may be obvious, but it's critical that everyone in the organization undergo training, all the way up to the top.” Her comments speak to the double standard some organizations grant their leaders and the harmful implications of turning the blind eye.

3. Incorporate Bystander Intervention

The EEOC’s new guidelines on harassment trainings now include the concept of "bystander intervention,” a term used to describe the collective accountability of all workplace employees to disrupt both harassment and sexism.

While some of the language is vague, there is also much that is valuable in this approach. Take the Harvey Weinstein case. Over the last weeks, former employees and close acquaintances of Weinstein have acknowledged hints of misconduct they perceived all along, raising questions of what makes someone an enabler. Some of these people might have intervened sooner if they had the proper training to support them in that role. 

4. Make Trainings Personal—But Not Too Personal

Some research shows trainings are more effective when they typify forms of sexual harassment (i.e. “this is what harassment looks like”), rather than try to change social attitudes. Less effective are sweeping conversations about the correlation between harassment, misogyny, class power, and white privilege. This sort of knowledge and skills approach has been shown to be effective, as it leaves participants with the sense of empowerment to disrupt or avoid further harassment.

Alongside this, longer trainings and trainings that engage role-play often sit with participants on a deeper level. While some researchers believe online trainings allow the discussion to be personalized according to the varying beliefs of each participant, most research shows longer trainings and participatory trainings have a more lasting impact. One user’s review of a recent online training speaks to the boredom such tutorials conjure. As the participant expressed, “the training was only painful in its superfluity.” Of course, in-person trainings are not without their dangers and triggers and their success largely depends on both the capabilities of the training’s leader and the history of workplace dynamics.

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Sophie Linden is an editorial assistant at AlterNet's office in Berkeley, CA.