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Op-Ed

How sexual harassment 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."

Follow-up interviews indicated that these policies were applied in multiple offices on Capitol Hill. It wasn't "policy," but everyone understood the protocol. "It's definitely something that a lot of women on the Hill experience, and not necessarily because the boss is creepy or that it's protecting her," said one woman. "It's to make situations not seem untoward."

Wherever a sex partition exists, it limits women's ability to connect with their colleagues and therefore limits their careers. The research is irrefutable: Those with larger networks earn more money and get promoted faster. Because men typically dominate senior management, there's evidence that the most valuable network members may be men. Without access to beneficial friendships and mentor relationships with executive men, women won't be able to close the gender gap that exists in most professions.

Limiting interactions between men and women isn't the only negative outcome associated with sexual harassment prevention training. Employees generally perceive that the training is provided for the protection of female employees, which carries with it images of weak women who can't fend for themselves. An experiment I conducted revealed that simply watching a sexual harassment prevention training video left viewers with the impression that women were emotionally weak.

Worse, the evidence in the shockingly few studies of training efficacy isn't encouraging. In one study, researchers found that sexual harassment training had no impact on participants' knowledge about sexual harassment or on the likelihood they would engage in harassing behaviors. In another study, training participants emerged more confused about what constituted sexual harassment than before they started.

Fortunately, the training can be improved. It has been too focused on limiting legal liability rather than on reducing bad behavior. Although psychologists have spent years researching how to influence human behavior and attitudes, their knowledge hasn't been much tapped.

In addition to shaping training to reduce the incidence of harassment rather than just lawsuits, employees need to be educated on the importance of including all coworkers in their social circles. They should be assured that inviting a colleague to lunch is not sexual harassment, and encouraged to socialize with both sexes.

I can hear the objections now: Women can't have it both ways. They can't tell men to be cautious around them, and then complain that they feel left out because men are behaving too cautiously.

But I believe we can have it both ways. Men and women can maintain appropriate boundaries at work and develop professional friendships and mentor relationships. It's the only way women will reach parity with men in the workplace.

Kim Elsesser is a psychologist and the author of "Sex and the Office: Women, Men, and the Sex Partition That's Dividing the Workplace." She is a lecturer at UCLA, where she teaches classes on psychology and gender.

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