Changing the way we think about sexual harassment, and how to solve it
The first time I was sexually harassed was in the hallway in 8th grade. My classmate put his arm over my shoulder and extended it to grope my right breast. Terrified, I instinctively smacked him. The hall monitor asked if everything was okay. “Yup!” We laughed. His was playful. Mine was a nervous laugh of shock and confusion. Those interactions became less and less funny as I grew older. In an office, I couldn’t smack a colleague. I had to be careful not to offend.
I could however, think twice about going to dinner with a coworker so as to not send the wrong message. I could try to dodge the guys that brought up suggestive themes in casual conversation. I could pretend I didn’t hear the joke. I could not text back. I avoided getting too close. I eventually realized, it was a lose/lose game. At best I would succeed in pretending to be ‘one of the guys’ and at worst I would become a target of the wrong kind of attention.
We can’t talk about sexual harassment without talking about masculinity and power.
Every few months, we’re reminded of our country’s sexual harassment problem. Our country elected a man who bragged about sexual assault to be president. Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes were ousted from their jobs over sexual harassment allegations. Sexual harassment scandals have shaken up the military, the University of California system, even the National Park Service. All in the past year.
However, nowhere else is the problem as bad, it seems, as in tech. On Friday, we learned that several prominent VCs used their positions of power to harass female founders seeking their support — including a few who were renowned publicly as diversity and inclusion champions. This bombshell came just a few days after revelations about Binary Capital, which came just a few weeks after the Uber controversy, which mirrored the stories told for years by brave women like Julie Ann Horvath, Kelly Ellis, Amelie Lamont, Adria Richards, and Ellen Pao. Sexual harassment in tech isn’t new…And the stories we’ve heard are likely just the tip of the iceberg.
How did we get here? In tech as in many parts of society, at work, dominant masculinity has currency. Values traditionally associated with masculinity often get infused into company culture. Think Uber’s core values including: Always Be Hustlin’, Let Builders Build, and Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping. Even where stated values aren’t so explicitly aggressive, behaviors traditionally associated with masculinity—drive, grit, assertiveness, taking charge — are often rewarded, promoted, and modeled in the highest ranks of leadership. Those who do not behave in accordance with that stereotype get left behind.
In such workplace cultures, those with power may exert it over those who do not have masculine characteristics or who do not conform with domineering, harassing, or sexually exploitative behavior. Sometimes it makes headlines, sometimes it flies under the radar, but it’s always toxic.
We’ve been thinking about sexual harassment all wrong.
Workplace sexual harassment is largely misunderstood. There is very little agreement on what constitutes sexual harassment. Is one sexual joke told in a team meeting sexual harassment? Is one request for a date from a VC or a manager? The law doesn’t help much either — the behavior has to be unwelcome; but how do you know it’s unwelcome until you engage in it? To be able to identify harassing behaviors for what they are, and to implement established procedures to respond to them, we must first understand what it is and how it functions.
- Sexual harassment is a function of toxic masculinity. A study of the gaming world found that sexual harassment was more likely to be enacted by participants who had a social dominance orientation (more likely to agree with the statement, “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups” and “Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place.”) In a study that found the questioning of a man’s masculinity to be anxiety-producing, the highest increase in cortisol (the stress hormone) came from men with the lowest baseline testosterone–suggesting that the risk of “not being a man” created significant anxiety for men who seemed less dominant.
- Sexual harassment is more about power than sexual desire. Sexual harassment is a way to undermine an individual’s formal authority. It often targets “uppity” women who violate feminine norms by being dominant and assertive, as scholar Jennifer Berdahl has found. Holding positions of power increases sexually aggressive behavior for formerly low-power individuals, according to Stanford and Emory researchers. “People who see themselves as chronically denied power appear to have a stronger desire to feel powerful and are more likely to use sexual aggression toward that end.”
- It is about power…and insecurity. Harassment can be a function of insecurity about one’s self. A 2015 study of harassment in the gaming world found that women received more harassment from poor performing male players rather than strong male players. In a separate study, when male participants were told their scores on a personality test were more “feminine,” they increased their hostility toward effeminate gay men (e.g. who were aspiring dancers), but not toward masculine gay men (e.g. who were aspiring business CEOs).
- Sexual harassment is intersectional. For black women, sexual harassment is often racialized. Racialized sexual harassment of black women is more likely when perpetrated by a white man, who are more often a higher status position. And that interplay has physiological impact, as racialized sexual harassment causes higher stress responses than gender harassment alone. For transgender employees, sexual harassment often targets gender identity and presentation, and can be particularly hostile. In one study, half of participants reported being physically threatened, emotionally abused, or fired because of their gender identity.
- Sexual harassment is about behavior, not a ‘type’ of person. Any employee can engage in sexually harassing behavior. They need not be a “sexual predator.” The misperception is harmful. It explains why Susan Fowler’s HR said her supervisor’s actions were clearly within the definition of harassment, but they didn’t “feel comfortable” taking action. What they really meant was, “but he wasn’t serious…he’s not a sexual predator, ya know?” Whether or not conduct is motivated by sexual desire, is irrelevant to whether it is qualified as sexual harassment. “Good guys” and women can sexually harass too. That’s reality and the law.
- Sexual harassment happens to men, too. Since 2010, between 16–18% of EEOC sexual harassment claims were filed by men. Same-sex sexual harassment is more common among men than among women, and for men often is associated with hostile behaviors designed to tease and humiliate. The same ideological beliefs (sexist attitudes) that justify tolerance of sexual harassment for women do so for men too.
Understanding the data is critical for effective training.
Over the next few weeks people will scramble for solutions. Mea culpas, think pieces, and twitter threads will abound. And many will look for the quick fix. The quick fix won’t work. It never has.
Approaches to combating sexual harassment commonly focus on legal compliance to protect an employer from potential litigation. These quick fixes aren’t designed to address the reality of the problem. The problem is not only with knowledge of the law, but also with implementation and respect of underlying norms of behavior. Uber’s generic sexual harassment training did not deter the behavior of Fowler’s manager who sent his first harassing messages to her on her first day on the team. Neither did that training equip HR to effectively respond: HR told Fowler they wouldn’t feel comfortable implementing such standards because he “was a high performer.” The problem was not an awareness or content knowledge of what one should do, but a deeper resistance to actually doing it. In the real world, an employer will be held accountable in the court of public opinion, not just a court of law. Susan Fowler didn’t need to file a lawsuit–in fact she never did, she just needed a blog.
Efforts to combat sexual harassment should be robust, informed by best practices, devised with accountability in mind, and integrated into a broader diversity and inclusion strategy. To be part of an effective harassment prevention program, training should be driven by research and best practices. In advising and training companies with ReadySet, I incorporate insights from across disciplines, including my own research on sexual harassment at Harvard.
So, what does the evidence say about sexual harassment training?
- Trainings must be in person, customized for participants, and invest real time. The longer the training, the more effective. That’s just the reality. Specifically, training should be at least 4 hours in length. Not only does the length of time increase training effectiveness (in acquiring knowledge and skills), but participants actually enjoy it more, reporting more positive reactions to the training. Training should also be customized for different constituents. Team leaders and management will have different concerns than team members. Both need to have the skills to identify and combat sexual harassment in their unique working context.
- Training is most effective in educating employees through knowledge and skills. Don’t expect training to change attitudes of your employees–the data says that’s unlikely. However, focusing on knowledge and behaviors, sexual harassment training can enable employees to understand the underlying dynamics of power, intersectionality, and masculinity at their core. Empirical data can help employees recognize and reject harassment. Training must enable participants to be become more aware of the assumptions and biases they bring–whether the evaluate differently an inappropriate comment made to a black female employee versus a white female colleague. It should instruct participants how to monitor their own actions and respond appropriately. That’s a lot, which means investing in an expert trainer.
- Training must be integrated and embedded in other initiatives. It cannot stand alone. Study after study shows that training when implemented alone or on an ad hoc basis doesn’t work. Sexual harassment training should be part of broader learning and development programming that incorporates diversity and inclusion considerations into all aspects of the curriculum. Furthermore, it should be integrated into an organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy, and supported with strong policies and accountability mechanisms.
Solving the problem of sexual harassment means preventing it in the first place. To tackle the problem of sexual harassment, we must first understand the underlying dynamics of power, intersectionality, and toxic behavior. We should also acknowledge that common approaches to dealing with sexual harassment don’t work very well, in part because they do not take these cultural dynamics into account. Sexual harassment does not happen a vacuum. It’s symptomatic of a broader cultural failing. It’s only when we address that culture do we stand a chance of success.