Sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem, but it turns out that one of the most common ways to try to prevent it might be counterproductive. Several studies have found that workplace sexual harassment programs might make sexual harassment worse by presenting over-the-top examples that make people less likely to take the real life ones seriously. Basically, it's like D.A.R.E. but for grown-ups — supposed to help you, but in reality just showing you unrealistic situations and scientifically proven to be counterproductive.
Anti-harassment programs come in all shapes and sizes, depending on where you work, but overall, such programs have become more and more common in the United States over the years. This is a good thing in that it shows people are taking the problem seriously — but unfortunately, those good intentions apparently aren't helping. Numerous studies have shown that not only do programs designed to fight sexual harassment not work, many actually make the problem worse.
So how is that possible?
“Sexual harassment training may, in fact, make it less likely that males will recognize situations that are harassing,” explained Lauren Edelman, a faculty member in the renowned UC Berkeley law school, to The Guardian. Furthermore, she added that “sexual harassment training may provoke backlash in males.”
In one study, for instance, men who had been through a sexual harassment course were much less likely to label a coercive encounter between coworkers as sexual harassment than men who had not undergone the training program. Other research has found that men who undergo such training are less likely to file reports of harassment they've noticed. The one thing that the training does seem to do is make men more worried about false accusations and make men who are accused of harassment more defensive. Which is about the least helpful thing possible if you're trying to create an open and respectful workplace.
In some ways, though, this makes sense. After all, one of the problems with sexual harassment is that it's often so in keeping with prevailing sexist gender norms that it's hard for people to see it as a problem unless they're on the receiving end. It's hard for a guy to understand why his comments about your skirt make you feel disrespected and objectified, not flattered. It's hard to explain why your boss's sexual comments seem threatening, not funny. And because these things can be so subtle, it makes sense that anti-harassment programs would try to make use of overblown examples to present the same dynamics, but in a much more straightforward, easy-to-understand way.
Unfortunately, it also makes sense why this would be of no practical impact whatsoever. Instead of making men — and presumably women — more sensitive to the underlying power dynamics, it just presents a false impression of what constitutes harassment: That is, things that don't seem that bad still go unnoticed or ignored. And then when a man is called out on inappropriate behavior, it makes sense he'd be more likely to get defensive because he wouldn't want to be lumped in with the sort of men he's been taught to think of as harassers. Plus, you know, people typically get more defensive the more certain they are that they're right, and if you've had a whole training course that gave you the idea this is not harassment...
Basically the whole thing is a perfect storm of "just making everything worse"
So how do we fix it? Well, the obvious place to start would seem to be in making sexual harassment seminars and training programs that are more nuanced, that get into the underlying power dynamics in play and that use examples that are more realistic, even if they seem less dramatic. Because it's more important to be effective than to go for shock value anyway.