By Lisa de la Rue, Assistant Professor at the Department of Counseling Psychology, University of San Francisco
From Hollywood to Washington D.C., and everywhere in between, there has been an awakening to the issue of sexual violence against women. Recent media attention has highlighted the frequently silent struggles of women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault, and emboldened a ”Me Too” campaign that has empowered more and more women to finally feel safe to share their stories. The growing public consciousness of this problem has also provided momentum for change, but the question is will this change be able to shift an ingrained culture that has allowed sexual harassment and assault to continue with little intervention.
Sexual harassment was first conceptualized as a legal term, and considered a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Originally this form of harassment was thought of as typically occurring between two individuals, for example in the form of quid pro quo requests for sexual favors in exchange for employment security or advancement. Two decades later, the Supreme Court established that creating a hostile environment also constituted sexual harassment (Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 1986), thus expanding the scope of sexual harassment beyond individual perpetrators and victims to also recognizing the systemic nature of sexual harassment. It is this systematic nature of sexual harassment and assault that has been on display in recent accounts of sexual harassment. A culture where many people knew the harassment was occurring, but chose to look the other way or to dismiss the experiences of the women voicing their experiences and concerns.
With the increased awareness of the rampant incidents of sexual harassment and assault, there has also been a corresponding call to address these issues and a need for reform. For example, there is legislation pending in the United States Congress that seeks to address how sexual harassment and assault cases are handle within the House and Senate, with the intention to be more victim-focused. Not surprisingly, there has also been a strong push for more sexual harassment training. But these training efforts are likely to fall short.
Research has shown that many well-intentioned programs often do not fully accomplish their intended outcome. For example, a systematic review was conducted to look at the effectiveness of programs implemented in schools that sought to prevent or reduce incidents of dating violence among adolescents. Results of this meta-analysis showed that school-based programs influence dating violence knowledge and attitudes; however, when considering dating violence perpetration and victimization results indicate programs are not affecting these behaviors to a significant extent. In other words, when young people participated in these programs, they increased their knowledge of sexual harassment and dating violence, but did not actually demonstrate a shift in behaviors. Given these results, there is not much support for expecting that making adults in the workforce engage in sexual harassment training will actually lead to a change in these behaviors.
As this review highlighted, although knowledge and attitude change are important precursors to addressing sexual violence, it is likely this is not sufficient to lead to changes in actual behaviors. Within schools for example, there must be a cultural shift. Schools must monitor behaviors and make focused efforts to address sexual violence in their classes and hallways, and to promote an atmosphere that is not tolerant of harassing behaviors. For example, students who perpetrate sexual harassment must face appropriate disciplinary sanctions, and the victim of this harassment must be supported and protected. This same logic can be extended when we think about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Knowledge will not be enough to shift the culture. Perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault need to be held accountable, including but not limited to, removing them from the job, despite the power or prestige they hold in their position. This will require institutions to make focused efforts to shift to a culture that supports victims of sexual harassment, and is not tolerate of these behaviors. Institutions must take reports of harassment seriously, and not take retaliatory actions against those who report harassment.
Despite Title VII’s passage half a century ago, gender and race discrimination in the workplace is still a serious problem. Recent news has highlighted what many women are already aware of, sexual harassment and assault continues to be a significant problem. The recent media attention has provided the momentum that empowers more women to share their stories. The hope is this momentum continues so that actual shifts can be made, and fewer people will be the victims of sexual harassment and assault. However, we know that increasing knowledge around these issues is not enough. We need a cultural shift that holds perpetrators accountable, despite the power and prestige they may hold.