Does Online Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Work?
What is online sexual harassment training?
Organizations have been running sexual harassment prevention training for years. However, with the rise of the # MeToo movement in 2017, conversations about the prevention of sexual harassment in workplaces have come to light in the media, as well as in organizations. A Canadian study showed that 43% of women and 12% of men were sexually assaulted at work. Another survey showed that 64% of women and 53% of men agree that sexual assault exists in their workplaces.
In addition to this, in the United States, sexual harassment prevention courses in the workforce contribute to $10 billion in business(1), and five states specifically mandate workers to have online sexual harassment training in the prevention of abuse to employees. Furthermore, in a study commissioned by the Canadian government in 2017, 43% of survey respondents reported that they had undergone sexual harassment prevention courses in their workplaces.
The objective of sexual harassment prevention courses is to increase awareness and accuracy of the recognition of sexual harassment, as well as to inform employees about the organization’s processes for handling complaints (e.g. procedures for filing claims, as well as organizational responses to charges). It also aims to increase understanding amongst workers of the unlawfulness of sexual assault, and how detrimental it can be to staff.
Online sexual harassment training is available in all shapes and sizes: it may be experiential and may include video, games, group discussions or lectures. Since sexual harassment prevention courses are diverse in its methods and delivery, it must not be uniformly defined. Nevertheless, given the popularity of sexual harassment prevention courses, it remains important to question its effectiveness. Are sexual harassment prevention courses practical and efficient methods to minimize sexual misconduct at work?
How sexual harassment prevention courses can be effective
Increases awareness around sexual assault
Sometimes, workers can feel confused about what is deemed sexual abuse. Online sexual harassment training can be useful in putting everyone on the same page about what constitutes harassment, while at the same time providing people with the language and tools to address it.
It can lead to increased reporting and reduced victim-blaming
Evidence indicates that the number of sexual harassment complaints in companies is increasing after online sexual harassment training, suggesting that complainants are more willing to come forward.
It may be most effective in mobilizing witnesses
While many people may think that the primary objective of sexual harassment prevention courses is to reduce the behavior of perpetrators and increase the willingness of targets to report complaints, research shows that sexual harassment prevention courses can work most effectively through bystanders.
Bystander intervention training can improve witnesses’ intentions to intervene, trust in intervention, as well as levels of intervention levels. For one report, workers who obtained instruction were more inclined to believe that unwelcome physical movements, contact, and date coercion constitute sexual abuse. Recognizing what qualifies as sexual assault is a significant first move towards cultural reform.
Why sexual harassment prevention courses might not be efficient
It ignores systemic issues such as structures of control and inequality
Sexual harassment prevention courses are often carried out without simultaneous intervention in power dynamics and gender-based prejudice that comes hand-in-hand with sexual harassment.
It could be more symbolic than real
Studies have argued that sexual harassment prevention courses are emblematic, rather than a real effort. While there is little indication that sexual harassment prevention courses, actually reduce harassment, organizations continue to run them often as a box-checking or compliance activity.
It can lead to backlash
Sexual harassment prevention courses can lead to backlash, especially on the part of men. For example, after training, men may be afraid to make mistakes and dissuade them from working with junior women. This, in turn, prevents men from establishing working relationships with women that could have benefited the advancement of women’s careers. Also, one study showed that men were less likely to disclose sexual assault after anti-sexual harassment instruction, which could have been a tool for self-preservation in the face of perceived assaults on their gender(2). Other studies have shown that sexual harassment prevention courses result (I take this with a grain of salt. SH prevention courses directly impact women in C-level positions?) in reduced numbers of women executives, possibly due to perceptions of group threat and backlash from men. (3)
Organizations are confronted with a legislative, social and corporate obligation to prevent the sexual harassment of their workers. What is questionable is whether anti-sexual assault awareness is the best method to do it. On the one hand, online sexual harassment prevention training may be useful in teaching staff and helping to achieve goals. On the other hand, it is perplexing that sexual harassment prevention courses do not address the power relations and prejudice that cause sexual harassment in the first place.
The fact remains – even though the issue of sexual harassment needs to be addressed and handled from many angles, an effective online sexual harassment prevention course still has its place in the big picture.
(1) Roehling, M.V. and Huang, J. (2018). Sexual harassment training effectiveness: An interdisciplinary review and call for research. Journal of Organizational Behaviour 39, 134-150.
(2) Bingham, S.G. and Scherer, L.L. (2001). The Unexpected Effects of a Sexual Harassment Educational Program. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 37 (2), 125-153.
(3) Dobbin, F. and Kalev, A. (2019). The promise and peril of sexual harassment programs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(25), 12255-12260.