Why sexual harassment training isn't working
Hannah West
Research lead
Where are we going wrong?

In a world where sexual harassment has never been acknowledged more, preventative training remains in the back seat. The sexual assault and harassment narrative has evolved massively over the past few years, drawing more attention to victims and giving a much-needed voice to their experiences. The logical next step from acknowledging that these issues exist, surely, would be to find ways of preventing them from happening; we’ve identified that there is a problem, so let’s find a way to fix it.

If that’s logical, then why has our approach as a society to sexual harassment training been so lacking?

Sexual harassment training - why do we need it?​

First things first: why do we need sexual harassment training in organisations? We’ll get the glaringly obvious out of the way: we need sexual harassment training because sexual harassment happens, and we want it to not happen.

Now to dig a little deeper into that question. We need sexual harassment training because we are, right now, in the very beginnings of unravelling a culture that has been assembled continuously since the beginning of time, and unfortunately glancing over an Instagram infographic with a statistic on it just isn’t enough to fix the multitude of problems this culture has bred.

Having said that, UN Women UK has reported that 97% of women are victims of sexual harassment at some point in their life, and that statistic does matter. The reality is that we still live in a world that socially conditions misogyny into young boys who develop it into their adult years, and that needs first to be acknowledged, and then unlearned if we are to move forward with any kind of progress.

Men can’t do anything nowadays...​

We now live in a culture where people not only acknowledge that this is an issue, but care about it and want to talk about it.  However, the culture of bringing sexual harassment to the forefront also creates a certain discomfort too, which results in defensiveness by those who feel they are in the group associated with the perpetrator of these crimes.

This then begins to pedals a counternarrative that “men can’t do anything nowadays” - keeping perpetrators at the centre of the narrative and once more eliminating the voice of the victim.  Add into this equation the fact that men are more likely to be in management positions (40% more in the UK, according to CMI), and therefore are more likely to be in charge of rolling out sexual harassment training, and we’re starting to scratch the surface of what might be going wrong.

What’s the problem?​

So what is going wrong with sexual harassment training? The shorter answer would entail listing what isn't going wrong, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll stick with the long answer.  There are a lot of components making up the reasons why organisations fail so catastrophically at effectively preventing sexual harassment, but here are some of the main ones:

First off, current sexual harassment training is (typically) done as a tick-box exercise.  Workplace dynamics take on a universal recognition of the fact that, this is going to happen, it’s going to be uncomfortable, just don’t ask any questions at the end and we’ll get it over and done with quicker.  Then you can all go for lunch.

It’s reactive, not proactive. The current approach to sexual harassment training tends to be done as a response to things that have already happened, and while it is essential to deal with incidents when they do happen, preventative measures that contribute to a positive environment need to be present too.

When training is used as prevention, it focuses too heavily on the legal repercussions of sexual harassment, not on the victims, which was documented in the 2016 EEOC report.  Rather than reduce actual incidents in workplaces and educational spaces, this simply makes everyone feel a bit guilty just for existing at work. The real-life threat of sexual harassment is replaced by a feeling of guilt for putting everyone to so much trouble, while the act of actually being inappropriate and harmful in a professional space is reduced to the fear of being punished for it.

Why does it matter that it isn't up to scratch?​

Isn't any kind of training better than nothing at all? Well, that might be a comforting enough thought that has certainly kept organisation leaders complacent for long enough - but it’s not true. Studies show when sexual harassment is carried out ineffectively, it can actually have the reverse effect, making harassment more likely to occur and less likely to be identified.

What’s the solution?​

Now let's get to the part we all really want to know - how on earth do we digest the gigantic pileup of problems that we just discussed, let alone solve them? Needless to say, there is no quick fix for making sexual harassment training more effective, and the main reason for that is we need to stop seeing it as a one-and-done tick-the-box activity that, once we get it out of the way, we can all finally get back to our jobs.

This separation of the training from the workplace is one of the reasons why it’s failing, because they aren’t separate: conduct within an organisation becomes part of the organisation itself.  Therefore this kind of conduct will only change if the culture within the organisation changes - training needs to be more than a set of instructions.

Creating this culture also means taking a more proactive approach.  A culture of respect also means that organisations are taking necessary steps to prevent instances in an inclusive and safe environment.  The reality is that most people are well aware that groping a colleague after one too many wines at the work Christmas party is not okay - it needs to dig deeper into the real issues behind why sexual harassment happens and preventing it.  Of course, there also needs to be a full set of measures in place for if and when incidents do occur - sexual harassment training can never guarantee that it will never occur - but it's a damn good place to start.

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