New Research Reveals the Unexpected Way Sexual Harassment Trainings Backfire

May 8th 2016

Laura Donovan

Sexual harassment trainings are aimed to prevent discrimination at the workplace.

New research, however, suggests that we might be better off without these trainings.

Several peer-reviewed studies have found that sexual harassment prevention programs may actually encourage acts of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a recent report from The Guardian. Lauren B. Edelman, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, told the publication that these trainings might make it harder for men to realize when they are sexually harassing someone. In turn, this can perpetuate more examples of sexual harassment.

Lauren Edelman

“Sexual harassment training may, in fact, make it less likely that males will recognize situations that are harassing,” Edelman told the publication. “Sexual harassment training may provoke backlash in males.”

She added that there needs to be more research on what effectively combats sexual harassment at work, and that sexual harassment trainings are blatant attempts by companies to protect themselves from legal matters.

“We really need more research on what works," she said. "All we really know about sexual harassment training is that it protects employers from liability. We don’t know whether it protects employees. We don’t know whether it reduces sexual harassment.”

The “cartoonish, somewhat unrealistic” examples of sexual harassment in the training sessions might also provoke backlash and make men take them less seriously, Edelman said.

A seemingly dated sexual harassment prevent video below, for example, shows a male co-worker aggressively touching a female colleague and getting very close to her face. Sexual harassment at work can often be more subtle than that, as ATTN: has noted before.

The Guardian piece cites a 2001 study in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science that found that men who completed a 30-minute sexual harassment training program were "less likely than other groups to perceive coercive sexual harassment, less willing to report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim," the report states. The study also found that men have more favorable attitudes toward sexual behavior at work than their female counterparts.

While The Guardian notes several studies about sexual harassment in the piece, the article also states that sexual harassment research is limited to begin with because there isn't an abundance of research on these training programs out there yet.

When men get defensive.

Shereen Bingham, a co-author of the 2001 Journal of Applied Behavioral Science study and professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Communication, told The Guardian that the training apparently made some men feel threatened and potentially at risk of facing false sexual harassment accusations. This, Bingham said, seemed to make the men react to trainings in more defensive ways. Bingham also said that some men in high positions may not be able to understand what it's like to be harassed.

“People in powerful positions don’t have a good grasp of what it’s like to be in a non-dominant group," she said.

Sexual harassment trainings often portray women as helpless creatures.

Kim Elsesser, a psychologist and the author of "Sex and the Office: Women, Men, and the Sex Partition That's Dividing the Workplace," wrote in a 2015 Los Angeles Times op-ed that sexual harassment trainings can have the negative impact of making women appear unable to fight for themselves:

"Employees generally perceive that the training is provided for the protection of female employees, which carries with it images of weak women who can't fend for themselves. An experiment I conducted revealed that simply watching a sexual harassment prevention training video left viewers with the impression that women were emotionally weak."

The Guardian referenced a 2007 study in Social Psychology Quarterly that found men started having gender biases after learning about sexual harassment boundaries, which can have the effect of "activating gender stereotypes rather than challenging them," co-author Justine E. Tinkler told the publication.

Tinkler added that the most effective way to prevent sexual harassment at work is to give more leadership roles to women and eliminate workplace gender imbalance at-large. Many fields, however, have a higher proportion of men in leadership roles than women.

Read the full Guardian story here.