We all sit through sexual harassment training at work. And ever since sexual harassment began being seriously studied two decades ago, awareness of the issue has skyrocketed. Today, 64 percent of people believe workplace sexual harassment is a serious problem, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll. Yet so many people still experience it—including 30 percent of female employees.
So what are we missing?
The answer might lie beyond those mandatory trainings, said Vicki Magley, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut. An expert in occupational health and stress, she has been studying workplace sexual harassment for more than 20 years.
“Despite many years, probably about 15 years of active work in organizations and lots of training companies’ active work in organizations, we still seem to know very little about whether training programs individually do anything,” she said.
That might be because organizations are acting in their best interests—sexual harassment training is often set up to protect companies from legal action rather than employees from harassment. And any examination of whether the trainings actually work could be used against these companies in lawsuits, Magley said.
Though the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommends companies incorporate training as part of a sexual harassment prevention program, there is no federal law that mandates harassment training in the workplace. State laws vary. Many states don’t have any training requirements at all.
“The laws encourage, at least, such training to help employees recognize that the organization is aware of the possible issues,” Magley said. “It helps to satisfy their end of taking reasonable actions” to prevent it.
But, “it doesn’t then go the next step further to say it has to be shown to be effective. So why should organizations really get involved when it could come around and bite them where it hurts?”
Well, because they should care about their people. From a legal standpoint, “it’s sort of understandable why organizations are behaving that way,” Magley said. “It’s not understandable, though, if you take the perspective that human capital is essential to organizational success.
“Without solid, invested, engaged, committed human capital, organizations fail. Organizations rely on their human capital to achieve their missions, so it doesn’t at all make sense… that organizations are engaging in lackluster training efforts that aren’t really doing what they purport to do.”
This all sounds really cynical. Does your workplace really only have its own best interests at heart? Not necessarily. Magley believes that all businesses are looking out for themselves in the legal sense, but that doesn’t mean their human resource procedures are problematic. In other words, the training might not be doing anything but covering your employer legally, but the HR department might still be taking complaints very seriously and dealing with them appropriately.
That’s something Magley doesn’t think has been made clear in the recent wave of media coverage surrounding sexual misconduct.
“Organizations vary tremendously in terms of the way sexual harassment is tolerated,” she said. “If you think about the media blitz that we have right now around sexual harassment, what you come away thinking is that all companies are evil and only self-interested and now they’re being challenged to take a stand, maybe to the point of scapegoating individuals.
“I don’t think that that’s true. I don’t think that the organizations that are making the media are representative of all organizations.”
So what would actually stop sexual harassment from happening?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Magley said. “We don’t really know what is the best thing to do.”
However, years of research have shown there are two main predictors of sexual harassment: the climate of an organization—how much the organization tolerates harassment—and the “genderedness” of an organization.
“Women are more likely to be harassed when they work for male supervisors and with other male coworkers and when they work in a traditional male occupation,” Magley explained.
The solution to the problem likely has nothing to do with training, she said.
“Organizations can… hire more women and promote more women, and not as tokens, but in parity.”
Having one or two “token” female employees put those employees at a heightened risk of being targeted.
“You have to get beyond token status, you need to get to some true meaningful proportion—parity would be ideal,” Magley said. “You can’t change the nature of an occupation but you can hire women in supervisory roles and you can hire women coworkers. Hiring women at all levels should make a difference.”
As for a workplace’s climate, “changing the climate is hard.”
A lot of workplace training centers around awareness of sexual harassment as an issue, but, on average, “we still haven’t gotten to this idea of behaviors—what are positive behaviors that employees can engage in, what are negative behaviors they shouldn’t engage in?”
Most companies are lacking “some bigger statement from higher level administrators saying, ‘This is a serious issue. We will take this seriously. We will respond in appropriate and timely ways. We will not make anybody feel at risk if they want to talk to us about these issues. We will make sure retaliation can’t happen.'”
They need to “really reassure people that this is an issue that’s going to be handled appropriately and fast.”
As employees, we should learn about our workplaces’ climates and the way allegations of sexual harassment would be handled if they arose.
“Start talking with managers,” Magley said. “What would happen if that came to our program, to our department, to our unit? …
“Even have those conversations at the interview phase, before you even enter an organization. … Is (the organization) respectful? Do people get along? Is there a sense of camaraderie? What happens when people disagree? Is it swept under the rug or do people talk about conflict openly? Those kinds of questions need to be asked before ‘What’s the pay?’ and ‘What are the benefits?’ What is the climate that (you’re) potentially considering being in?”
Magley’s hope is that the present heightened awareness around sexual assault will leave workplaces stronger.
“If I had one wish, I would wish that people could bring their authentic selves to work,” she said. “And that people would be willing to be vulnerable in the workplace and have genuine relationships and genuine conversations with others in the workplace, and maybe some of this will die down and we’ll be left with more authentic workplaces at the end of the day.”
Want to learn more about the changing conversation around sexual harassment? Check out new PBS series “#MeToo, Now What?” Look up your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times or watch online at PBS.org.