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Sexual Harassment Training is Failing Women: Why Preparedness, Not Prevention, is Key
As professional women, we hear the same workplace statistics regularly. While the numbers vary slightly, the conclusions are consistent: women make 83% of what our male peers make, we don’t negotiate enough, and 1 out of 3 of us will experience sexual harassment at work. There is continued discussion on how we can be a part of closing the wage gap and how we can adopt improved negotiation tactics. However, conversations on sexual harassment at work are generally ostracized to an organization’s HR portal or in venting sessions over drinks with our girlfriends.
While most organizations require employees to “attend,” (often virtually), annual sexual harassment training, their effectiveness leaves something to be desired. Employers are measuring the impact of these trainings using organizationally important benchmarks, instead of ones that matter to employees. According to glaxdiversitycouncil.com, employers measure effectiveness in categories like, “Trainee reactions, increased motivation and learning outcomes, the transfer of knowledge and skills to the workplace, return on the investment (ROI) in training, and its impact on organizational performance.” Based on this list, there is a gaping hole in the system. Employers are not considering how to equip women for the eventuality that many of us will experience sexual harassment at work, despite mandatory training.
Status Quo Shortcomings
Here are some ways sexual harassment training needs to level up for women:
Revolutionizing Sexual Harassment Training: Empowering Women for a Safer Workplace
1. Preparation over prevention
If we step outside the context of a workplace, we think of the word “training” as another word for practice. But most workplace sexual harassment training does not include practicing how we might react if we’ve been verbally or physically harassed. You may argue that we can never truly be ready to be propositioned with sex or touched inappropriately at work. I agree, practice won’t make perfect, but it can make progress. Role-playing in safe, intentional spaces can strengthen and develop our ability to react in a way we find ideal for our personalities and comfort zones.
If sexual harassment training asks women the difficult and uncomfortable question of, “What would you do if [situation x] happened to you?” we can thoughtfully address our options for in-the-moment reactions. Of course, there is no correct response or reaction to sexual harassment, but there is a right reaction for you. Often survivors aren’t able to access that right response in the moment harassment occurs, due to shock and intimidation. Actual practice for moments of sexual harassment won’t prevent it, but it can most definitely help us to align our immediate responses with our values, which will improve mental health outcomes for survivors.
2. Address mental-health challenges
Survivors of workplace sexual harassment often experience a predictable range of emotions directly after an event, and standard workplace training rarely addresses it. The cycle often begins with shock. Next can come embarrassment and shame, especially if the event happened in front of your peers. As time goes on, anger and sadness can show up. That anger can range from misplaced anger at ourselves, to anger at your harasser, and even macro-anger at the systems that allow these issues to continue. Current training methods do nothing to acknowledge or prepare women for these strong feelings.
3. Tackle tough choices
As mentioned in the Many Things Blog article, Impossible Choices, when women experience sexual harassment at work, they can be faced with several lose-lose decisions, including whether to disclose, to whom to disclose, and whether they seek assistance from the employer or private therapy resources. One of the toughest choices survivors can encounter, however inappropriate it may be, is how or if the co-worker who harassed her will be punished.
Smaller, less experienced organizations often fall into the awkward and excruciating practice of asking the survivor how they want to “handle the situation”. This type of perceived flexibility and compassion may seem like a kind thing to offer the survivor. However, the pressure of deciding the fate of their harasser’s job or other work-related factors is an unfair one to put on someone going through this type of trauma…and it is trauma.
4. Offer trigger warnings for survivors
Common workplace training courses can depict experiences that hit too close to home for those of us who have been involved in sexual harassment. Preparing staff, before the training, to handle triggers is important. Overall, a trauma-informed approach will allow employers to fully understand the impact of their training on survivors.
5. Non-traditional alternatives
Given the legal and cultural consequences employers may face if they were to adjust their training formats to include harassment preparedness, chances seem low they would make a shift in that direction. So how do women provide each other with the groundwork for a healthier response to potential sexual harassment?
First, we must demand our own education. Start a conversation with leaders in your organization about what you think is missing from your company’s training, especially from a mental health perspective.
Next, we may need to look to alternative sources to provide solutions. Instead of depending on employers who may not have a stake in pivoting, ask women’s associations and professional development groups to take on the task of preparedness training. Vulnerability and outside-the-box conversations are generally more accepted in these spaces.
Lastly, workplaces need to transition away from pretending we’re training each other to not harass and move towards admitting sexual harassment has remained a problem at work and begin to prepare women for when (most likely not if) it happens to them.
About the Author
Name: Kristin Rae Ray
Professional Title: Author, Blogger, Speaker
Bio: Kristin Ray is a two-time Amazon Best-Selling author, blogger, and public speaker. Kristin is dedicated to intentionally equipping women with the power to move through life with confidence. She is a passionate speaker on a multitude of topics including women at work, women’s empowerment, resilience, intentional parenting, and trauma survival. Kristin is a native of Lansing, Michigan, and a graduate of Michigan State University.
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