What should businesses do? Analysts say that sexual harassment training can help but is no silver bullet. Most companies have formal policies against harassment in their employee handbooks, and many require staffers to attend classes, yet research suggests the training can be ineffective if it doesn’t address real-world scenarios or offer credible solutions. In addition, company leaders may signal to subordinates that training is a mandatory human resources hurdle to endure and then forget, rather than an important, expectation-setting mandate.
“The training around sexual harassment is terrible,” said HBS’ Soltes. “There are people who grope people in elevators. That does happen. Training is not going to change that. However, that’s what training focuses on. That’s not the major problem. The major problem is people saying things that they think are a compliment when they’re not.
“I think this is the next step, where firms are going to really need to think very carefully. I’m hoping as researchers we can play a part [in] thinking about how to devise the kind of training that will resonate more deeply with people, so it’s not simply legal cover but is actually trying to nudge people to treat one another respectfully in the workplace,” he said. “But I think we have a long way to go before that occurs.”
Ely believes that addressing the work environment is essential. “The way I look at all gender issues in companies in general is that it’s always a problem of the workplace culture, whether we’re talking about sexual harassment or sexual assault or even just the implicit, inadvertent acting on biases,” she said.
Research has found that some organizations become places where behavior that was once outrageous slowly becomes normalized, “because it’s just one thing leads to another and people feel like, ‘Well, nothing ever happens, so I’m not going to report anything,’” she said. “And once in a while, there’s a case that comes up, and then it’s like, ‘Oh well, there’s a bad apple.’ It’s not a bad apple. It’s a culture that’s giving rise to this kind of behavior and letting it persist, not necessarily consciously, but …”
An important first step for companies is to bring in outside entities to assess how employees experience the culture, she said. But then it’s up to corporate leadership to make things right.
“I do think it’s the responsibility of companies to look at their culture with a really critical eye to understand how does that culture differentially affect different groups of employees — because we know it does,” Ely said. “I don’t think this is an H.R. thing. It’s not something you can legislate with policy. It’s something that leaders need to take up as their own agenda, to really be invested in understanding how people experience the culture of the organization, a culture that they, as leaders, are responsible for, whether they like it or not.”
That’s a tall order, in part because company leaders typically rise to the top by successfully negotiating the same workplace culture others perceive as hostile. Once in command, even if they are well-intentioned, they have only their own positive experiences and vantage points to draw from.
To prevent some men from abusing their power, Soltes said, companies should stop protecting high-status offenders. “I’m hoping that part of this is a turning point for the role that senior management, boards, and attorneys play. That simply creating these watertight legal contracts and NDAs is not sufficient to protect, so to speak, the organization.”
But firms also must make organizational norms clear and nip offensive behavior in the bud to create a fairer and better culture for all. “The main goal is not firing people,” Soltes said. “That’s a necessary punishment for some … but what we want to do is not have this happen in the first place. That’s what would benefit everyone most.”
Government too should play a major role in curbing sexual misconduct. In Washington, D.C., a city built on power, sexual abuse and harassment is a bipartisan problem that lawmakers have only begun to address. In addition, politicians are among those implicated, including the recently announced departures of Republican Reps. Trent Franks and Blake Farenthold, both of Texas, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, and Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.
Using data to change behavior
The Women and Public Policy Program at HKS works to identify data-driven ways to reduce gender inequality, especially in the workplace. Because many work environments — whether in offices, on factory floors, or in classrooms — were originally developed for a predominantly male population and men still far outnumber women in supervisory positions, bias against women can be built into the systems that shape who gets hired, who gets promoted, how much they’re paid, and how they’re treated.
Because implicit bias is unseen, researchers are studying how to remove it from workplaces through “nudges” that help organizations operate with less gender mistreatment. A nudge can involve blind evaluations that remove demographic characteristics when reviewing resumés, helping overcome assumptions about who might succeed in a job and who wouldn’t. In addition, having men help with harassment training increases their support and understanding of its import, research has found.
“It’s really difficult to change people’s mindsets. It’s much easier to change environments that make it easier for people to make the right decisions,” said Nicole Carter Quinn, the program’s director of research and operations.
An initiative launched this fall, “Gender and Tech,” will bring behavioral scientists and technology researchers together to study and develop interventions to root out bias against women in recruitment, retention, leadership, and promotion in the overwhelmingly male-dominated tech world, where women routinely face discrimination and sexual misconduct, as former Uber engineer Susan Fowler chillingly documented in a blog post earlier this year.
Education appears to have a central role in changing attitudes as well.
The #MeToo movement has shown how sharing personal experiences can promote conversations leading to change. According to a recent Harvard survey, another kind of frank dialogue is needed, one that has parents and educators talk with their children and students about harassment, as well as about what it means to have healthy, loving romantic relationships.
Compiled by Making Caring Common, an initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), the 2017 report is based on surveys of more than 3,000 young adults, including college and high school students, and aims to create a better understanding of how young people think about and develop romantic and sexual experiences. The study included information gathered from conversations with 18- to 25-year-olds, parents, teachers, coaches and counselors. According to the findings, sexual harassment and misogyny are pervasive among young people. The report suggested that such behaviors and attitudes often go unchecked because parents, educators, and peers don’t intervene.
“I think it’s an epic educational failure, really a staggering educational failure,” said Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer at HGSE, faculty director of the Making Caring Common project, and the study’s lead author. He hopes the report will act as “a real wake-up call.”