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How Do We Improve Sexual Harassment Training?

Suggestions from psychological science.

Mihai Surdu/Public Domain
Source: Mihai Surdu/Public Domain

Sexual harassment training has been ubiquitous for many years, in spite of being proven ineffective. A scientifically grounded alternative could actually help change hostile work climates and reduce the frequency of harassing behaviors.

At least a quarter of all working women — and up to 60% in male-dominated fields — report having been harassed. The existing prevention programs are not based on psychological science and are very rarely evaluated for their efficacy in reducing harassing behavior. Most training depicts various sexual harassment scenarios, with the aim of teaching workers what constitutes illegal behavior. The trainings are stilted, non-interactive and often are endured with a mix of disdain and ridicule. The current approach minimizes companies’ legal liabilities but has done almost nothing to reduce sexual harassment.

A viable, if counterintuitive, alternative is based on scientifically tested Acceptance and Commitment Training which is derived from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) has been shown to reduce prejudice and stigma, as well as to change peoples’ behavior. Most pertinently, Lillis and Hayes, researchers at the University of Nevada, found that ACT significantly reduced prejudicial attitudes and increased peoples’ willingness to engage respectfully with those in other ethnic groups. Basing sexual harassment training on psychological science could similarly change negative attitudes toward women and reduce the frequency of incidents.

In ACT workshops, participants would be shown how gender-based prejudices stem from upbringing, peer influence, sports, media, and other sources. We are all products of our culture and have been socialized in a society where misogyny is still built into our everyday language and way of thinking. Our minds often make automatic judgments, leading to prejudicial thoughts and feelings. Further ACT discussion would acknowledge that our feelings of attraction and sexual arousal might show up during inappropriate times and that there is little we can do to influence this. Feminists might ask, “Why don’t we just change these prejudicial and sexual thoughts and feelings?” Psychologists would answer, “Because they are not typically under conscious control — as anybody who has every tried not to think about a crush but ends up obsessing about her, can tell you.” The late Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner’s experiments over several decades convincingly showed that thought suppression paradoxically leads to preoccupation with the suppressed thought. Instead of engaging in a futile struggle to purify our minds, we could instead focus our energy on what we can control: our actions.

The main focus of ACT workshops is a series of experiential learning exercises revealing that thoughts and feelings do not actually “make us” do anything. Instead, we can always choose to behave in ways that value respect and the golden rule. To increase our understanding of how harassing actions violate these values, scientifically proven perspective-taking interventions would be used. First, real-life videos of women recounting how unwanted sexual advances affected them would start to humanize the problem. In the second part, participants would write or discuss how different harassment scenarios would affect their wives, girlfriends, daughters or mothers. Finally, employees would be asked to imagine and describe how a woman in a given scenario would feel — that is, to put themselves in her shoes.

During a concluding part of the workshops, participants would be invited to brainstorm about strategies they could use to encourage inclusive and respectful behaviors in their units. They would then make a concrete plan of implementation of the chosen strategies. This approach would capitalize on two robust psychological findings: People are much more likely to change behavior when they take ownership of the process, and rewards work significantly better than punishments in shaping behavior. Indeed, research shows that punishment (or the anticipation of punishment, akin to current sexual harassment trainings) never completely extinguishes undesirable behavior. It only suppresses it temporarily, at best.

Using psychological knowledge to transform sexual harassment training can make it effective. If we are serious about curbing sexual harassment, we can’t afford to ignore the science.

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