2018 marked a paradigm shift in our response to sexual harassment at work. #TimesUp and #MeToo galvanised targets of sexual harassment to speak out about their experiences and highlighted the shocking prevalence of workplace sexual harassment – crimes that had previously been cloaked in silence and shame, protecting and normalising the behaviour of serial perpetrators.
Defining Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment at work is defined by the EEOC as ‘unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
Sexual harassment can take many different forms – it can be obvious or indirect, physical or verbal, repeated or one-off and perpetrated by males and females against people of the same or opposite sex.
Examples of sexual harassment include:
staring or leering
unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against you or unwelcome touching
suggestive comments or jokes
insults or taunts of a sexual nature
intrusive questions or statements about your private life
displaying posters, magazines or screen savers of a sexual nature
sending sexually explicit emails or text messages
inappropriate advances on social networking sites
accessing sexually explicit internet sites
requests for sex or repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates
behaviour that may also be considered to be an offence under criminal law, such as physical assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, stalking or obscene communications.
Prevalence of Workplace Sexual Harassment
Although much of the media attention has focused on the US entertainment industry, workplace sexual harassment remains widespread across industries globally, particularly in industries that are predominately male.
The last sexual harassment prevalence survey run by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in 2012 ‘Working Without Fear’ found a quarter of women and one in six men aged 15 years and older reported having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years. 13% of Australians either witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace or were told of a specific incident. Men constituted almost 4 out of 5 of those who sexually harass.
Costs of Sexual Harassment
Targets of sexual harassment suffer negative psychological, health and job-related outcomes. Sexual harassment also costs employers through legal claims, an increased use of sick leave and job turnover, the creation of an atmosphere that leads to decreased individual and group work productivity, and reputational damage.
Compliance Focused Training Can Exacerbate The Problem
The traditional approach to mitigating the risk of workplace sexual harassment has been compliance-focused anti-harassment training, often facilitated by HR or Legal. Research, however, raises questions about the efficacy of sexual harassment training.
While there is evidence that it is effective in transferring knowledge, sexual harassment training has been found to unsuccessful in changing attitudes. Even more problematic, traditional sexual harassment training can trigger negative emotional responses like denial and defensiveness, anger and hostility, which can worsen attitudes towards groups that are more commonly targets of sexual harassment.
For example, a study published in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 2001, found that men who underwent 30 minutes of sexual harassment training were less likely than a control group to perceive or report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim. While men who received sexual harassment training were less likely to engage in such behaviour, it was likely due to fear of being accused rather than any improvements in attitudes.
The researchers suggested that the training might have made the men feel attacked—consciously or not—and that the backlash might have been an “effort at self-preservation.” The findings of this study align with research findings indicating that diversity training is threatening to white men.
Another study by Georgia University and Stanford researchers found that sexual harassment training can strengthen gender bias. “Participants in the policy condition displayed more entrenched male-advantaged gender beliefs compared to the baseline condition. We interpret this as evidence that sexual harassment policies may have the unintended effect of activating unequal gender beliefs, which run contrary to the policy’s equalizing aims”.
Poor training can also leave individuals unclear and confused about what behaviours constitute sexual harassment and what don’t. This can lead to anxiety and a tendency to avoid contact with women or other vulnerable groups for fear of crossing the line.
In a recent article in the New York Times, it was reported that men across a range industries such as finance, design and tech are laying low, hunkering down and actively avoiding women for fear of misconstrued behaviour and retribution. Fear and suspicion, in a workplace setting, can only be detrimental to good, productive relationships.
The Bystander Effect
A disturbing feature of many of the high-profile claims of sexual harassment covered by the media is the failure of bystanders to intervene. Although numerous colleagues of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Burke have corroborated targets’ claims of sexual harassment, the actions of these men apparently continued for years without interference or reporting to the authorities by those who knew of the activities.
Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley discovered that the bystander effect — the phenomenon whereby people are less likely to help others when there are other people around who can step in — is partly due to a diffusion of responsibility. Knowing that other people have witnessed a harmful event leads people to assume that others will step in to help the victim. The end result is a disturbing lack of action.
In the case of sexual harassment, other factors are also likely to be at play. For one, a powerful determinant of whether one will intervene or be a bystander is whether there is anything that suggests it might be costly to render assistance. This suggests culture and power have a contextual influence on the bystander effect. In a misogynist or ‘macho’ cultural setting, there may be a personal and professional cost to men who call out sexual harassment that curbs their tendency to intervene. Research at Georgia State University confirms that when men were exposed to a misogynistic social norm, they are less likely to intervene when they witness sexual aggression. Moreover, individuals are less likely to intervene when the perpetrator is in a position of power over their career success.
Power also contributes to the bystander effect by negatively affecting empathy. In a Northwestern University study, participants with a “high power” mindset were found to be less adept at reading people’s facial expressions, indicating an empathy deficit, and they were also less likely to take other people’s perspectives into account as they assessed a situation.
Another contributing factor to the bystander effect is whether the victim is similar to the bystander – people are more likely to help similar others. This may partly explain why targets are more commonly (but not always) from underrepresented groups in the workplace.
Also, the degree of ambiguity of a situation influences whether or not people intervene to assist others. People are more likely to intervene when it is clear that someone is being harmed and that they should intervene. Confusion around what behaviours constitute sexual harassment as well as the prevalence of sexual harassment in media and society can contribute to confusion over whether or not the target is being harmed.
Improving Workplace Sexual Harassment Interventions
Drawing from research, there are some steps that organisations can take to improve the efficacy of their anti-harassment programs:
1. Pay attention to training program design and delivery
A meta-analysis of 65 studies on diversity and sexual harassment training, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior in 2013, suggests that it is possible to teach people how to identify sexual harassment—and to convey how company policies treat it—without inciting a backlash effect. Factors that determine a program’s effectiveness include:
Training that is in-person and for longer than four hours produce a bigger effect; short and virtual trainings have less of an impact
Experiential training that requires participants to interact with each other is more effective than lectures-based training.
Participants learn more from supervisor- or external expert-led training and less when the leader is a colleague without direct authority over their day-to-day work.
Other research shows:
Training is “enhanced” when people are asked to set personal goals for how they will change their workplaces for the better.
However, even when training is designed to account for those findings, sexual harassment training is still unlikely to change attitudes. Moreover, individuals who enter sexual assault and harassment training with the most biased attitudes exit having learned the least.
2. Use empathy focused interventions to change attitudes
Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions. A commonly used technique for fostering empathy is perspective-taking – actively imagining the feelings and thoughts of others. Research shows that when men actively take the perspective of a victim of harassment, there’s a lower likelihood that they will sexually harass. This is why the stories of targets of sexual harassment are so powerful in fighting sexual harassment and changing attitudes.
3. Invest in bystander training
Bystander training transfers tools that individuals can use to once motivated to intervene. Because personal and professional costs can accompany intervention, effective bystander training uses evidence-based intervention techniques that minimise backlash and tools for handling objections or negative responses. For example, if the harasser reacts angrily, we can learn to defuse the situation by separating the harasser’s action from his or her intention, which may not have been to hurt someone.
4. Form ally networks
Networks of men who agree to support each other in calling out sexual harassment and protecting targets can be useful for countering anxiety about the personal and professional costs of intervening. The most effective ally networks have visible and committed senior leaders who set the tone for cultural change.
4. Build a diverse and inclusive workplace
A 2016 Equal Opportunity Commission report suggested that traditional sexual harassment training should be replaced with “respect-based interventions”. Respect is a defining characteristic of inclusive work settings. Respect exists when employees feel valued, empowered and safe regardless of any actual or perceived characteristic, including sex, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Businesses can foster respect by focusing on initiatives to build diverse and inclusive workforces. These may include:
initiatives to increase the leadership representation of women and other underrepresented groups
employee support networks
well-defined written codes of conduct and policies and effective employee grievance channels
developing inclusive leadership capability
unconscious bias training
metrics and accountability including culture and harassment surveys