women at work

Research Shows Anti-Sexual-Harassment Training Could Have Opposite Effect on Men

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When men are guilty of sexual harassment — as they are alleged to have been in the last couple of months alone at places like UC Berkeley and Boston University, in the comedy communities in Chicago and L.A., in sports, in television broadcasting, and the list goes on — the onus is often placed on the workplace to institute some sort of sexual-harassment training in order to prevent further incidents.

But new research reveals that sexual-harassment training may have an opposite effect on employees by “making men less capable of perceiving inappropriate behavior and more likely to blame victims.” Though the studies on sexual-harassment training are currently limited, a few point to reasons why men might be resistant to actually following what they have learned in training. The Guardian spoke with Justine Tinkler, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, and co-author of a study that found after men took harassment training, their gender biases were frequently reinforced.

“The purpose of sexual harassment policy is to make men and women more equal in the workplace,” she said. “If the policies are sort of activating gender stereotypes rather than challenging them, they may not be promoting that broader goal.”

Tinkler has also done research on how these trainings can actually ignite backlash. Men who already feel that women are “emotional and duplicitous in the way that they both want sexual attention, but don’t want sexual harassment” can get their feelings confirmed in sexual harassment training.

Julia Edelman, a professor of law and sociology at UC Berkeley who has done research on the inefficiency of sexual-harassment training, said that one reason for this could be that sexual-harassment training often features “cartoonish, somewhat unrealistic” examples of harassment in the workplace. “We really need more research on what works. 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,” she told The Guardian.

Sexual-harassment training as an afterthought is not enough to change a company’s culture so that women are protected from unwarranted advances. Instead, Edelman suggests that her university should work on “having a much clearer zero-tolerance policy with very clear sanctions that are very consistently carried out.” 

Men: Impervious to Sexual Harassment Training?