How sexual harassment prevention training hurts women

Oct 9, 2015
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How sexual harassment prevention training hurts women

It’s been a decade since California employers were legally required to provide sexual harassment prevention training to their employees. Estimates suggest that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year to comply with this law.

Has it improved our work life? There are unfortunately no reliable statistics to show the effect of the training because most harassment claims are handled within organizations. However, my research indicates that all that training and money is producing some unintended effects that are obstructing rather than helping women in their careers.

I’m not suggesting we set the clock back on the progress we’ve made in trying to decrease sexual harassment at work. But I’ve found that heightened awareness of harassment is also inadvertently leaving many employees overly cautious in interactions with the opposite sex. It’s creating a barrier, a sex partition.

Here’s how it works. Imagine a male executive asks a male employee to join him on a Starbucks run or for a beer after work. No one blinks an eye, a friendship develops, and perhaps a mentor relationship as well. However, if the same male executive invites a woman to join him for coffee or a beer, it’s a different story.

The invitation could be misinterpreted, rumors could fly, allegations could surface. The executive might worry that any twosome would be compromising or that calibrating every comment and gesture wouldn’t be worth the effort. As a result, male executives are sticking with other men when it comes time for dinners, lunches, business trips and after-work drinks. One study found that almost two-thirds of male executives are even reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a junior female employee.

The National Journal investigated the situation with female staffers on Capitol Hill. One said that in 12 years working for her previous boss, he “never took a closed-door meeting with me…. This made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult.” Another explained, “There was an office rule that I couldn’t be alone with the congressmen. The rule was to protect him and me, but it still felt unfair.”

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