Anti-harassment training doesn’t work — but this does

The corporate BandAid solution to sexual harassment is often to apply more human resources to the festering problem. Bring on the anti-harassment training programs and the reporting systems. But sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev put forth a different thesis in their new article for Harvard Business Review: The most effective solution to ending sexual harassment at work is hiring more women into positions of power.

Citing multiple studies, Dobbin and Kalev said that when more women are hired to positions of power, harassment is less likely to occur at work. While male-dominated teams are more likely to “tolerate, sanction, or even expect sexualized treatment of workers, which can lead to a culture of complicity,” putting women in power changes team dynamics and reduces the power differential. Women feel more comfortable coming forward about sexual misconduct, and off-color jokes are less tolerated on women-led teams, the sociologists argue.

Unfortunately, the sociologists also acknowledge that the existence of sexual harassment in a company makes this solution harder to implement. Surveys find that women are much likelier to quit a job or avoid a company once sexual harassment happens, creating a negative feedback loop of fewer women in power leading to more women leaving.

The research against the usefulness of anti-harassment training

In theory, anti-harassment programs and hotlines should hold harassers accountable and create an inclusive environment. But the sociologists found that these tools are used to prevent lawsuits, not help victims. In fact, they found that harassment programs can actually embolden harassers. One study found that men who had a self-reported proclivity to harass people were more likely to think harassing was not a big deal after training. In other words, the most likely offenders of harassment weren’t getting educated and having their attitudes change.

Anti-harassment programs aren’t changing hearts and minds, and the tools used to make harassers pay aren’t working either. The sociologists found that the women they wanted to stay in power were leaving even after formal grievance procedures were in place. The numbers of African American, Latina, and Asian American women in managerial positions declined after grievance procedures were put into practice, according to Dobbin and Kalev’s research.

The researchers suggest this exodus is because “women who file harassment complaints end up more likely to leave their jobs either involuntarily or of their own accord — and others may follow them when they see complaints badly handled, with the harassers still in their jobs.” Once you see how a sexual harassment complaint gets mishandled, it sets a demoralizing precedent. Why bother staying at a company that supports harassers?

So the next time your company wants to introduce anti-harassment training, consider raising your hand and asking how they’ll know if the training will work.