Why Sexual Harassment Training isn't Working
Hannah West
Research Lead
In this article;

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, is 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?

Why do companies need sexual harassment training?​

Stating the obvious, we need sexual harassment training because sexual harassment happens, and we want it to not happen. Digging deeper into the issue, we need sexual harassment training because we are in the process of unravelling a culture where it is all too common, particularly in the workplace. Education is necessary for success here, and glancing over an Instagram infographic with a statistic on it just isn’t enough to fix the multitude of problems this culture has bred.

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 — particularly in the wake of #MeToo and hearing the experiences of countless women. However, bringing sexual harassment to the forefront also creates a certain discomfort, which results in defensiveness by those who feel they are in the group associated with the perpetrator of this behaviour.

This then begins to pedal 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.

Why isn’t sexual harassment training working?

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:

  • It’s a tick-box exercise. Current sexual harassment training is (typically) done for compliance reasons, rather than with the goal of improving company culture and preventing instances of harassment. This means 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.
  • It creates larger divides. Oftentimes sexual harassment training can result in a backlash, and it’s difficult to figure out why. The reason is typically that men are being told that they are a problem that needs to be fixed, which leads to defensiveness. This makes men more likely to blame women for reporting harassment and, ultimately, creates more of a divide.
  • It focuses too heavily on the legal repercussions. When training only looks at the legal ramifications of sexual harassment at work and not on the victims, as documented in the 2016 EEOC report, it doesn’t reduce actual incidents in workplaces and educational spaces. Rather, it 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.

How can we reduce instances of sexual harassment at work?​

Now let's get to the solutions — how do we create workplace cultures that decrease cases of harassment? Needless to say, there is no quick fix for this. As we’ve covered, one of the key issues is the propensity to see training 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. The opposite is, in fact, true, the work on creating more equitable, safe and inclusive workplaces is ongoing.

Today’s goal should be finding ways of making training more effective, and finding alternative ways to improve workplace culture so that we start to see positive change. Here are some of GoodCourse’s top tips for creating positive change in your workplace:

  • Empower managers — if managers are delivering harassment training, then it only makes sense that they should be trained themselves and lead by example. Other employees then see buy-in from the top and therefore feel less defensive about being trained. This also means that managers are equipped to stop workplace harassment when they see it, even in the early stages. 
  • Encourage active bystanders — active bystander training has been proven as one of the most effective forms of sexual harassment training at work. First piloted in university campuses and then in the US army, teaching people to say or do something when they see wrong behaviour is a lot more effective than managers telling them. Read more on active bystanders in our blog.
  • Culture over compliance — reducing sexual harassment at work takes more than a set of instructions for people to follow, it takes a change in culture. 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.  
  • Be consistent — after delivering training, it’s essential to be consistent within the workplace on what the training teaches. This means encouraging reporting, taking reports seriously, and calling out bad behaviour when you see it.

GoodCourse is the harassment and inclusion training platform built for modern teams. By pairing TikTok-style content with expert-made learning paths, create cultural change with courses your employees actually enjoy.

From preventing sexual harassment to managing unconscious bias, GoodCourse equips your teams with the skills they need to create a safer, more inclusive culture.

Talk to a member of our team to see if GoodCourse is right for your company.

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