Sorry, Paul Ryan: Corporate-style harassment "training" isn't enough

Meaningless seminars won't fix sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. Perpetrators must face actual punishment

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 17, 2017 4:58AM (EST)

Paul Ryan (Getty/Win McNamee)
Paul Ryan (Getty/Win McNamee)

The rising tide of allegations and anger over sexual harassment has expanded past the entertainment and journalism industries and now is engulfing Congress. More women have come forward with allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore came onto them when they were teenagers and he was an adult man. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives held a hearing where Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said that two congressmen, a Republican and a Democrat, had "engaged in sexual harassment." Now a radio anchor named Leeann Tweeden has stepped forward, accusing Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., of sexual misconduct bordering on assault, and providing photographic evidence of Franken pretending to honk her breasts while she was sleeping.

Congress has a golden opportunity right now to step up and start modeling what an effective response to sexual harassment looks like. Unfortunately, it seems that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is doing what too many corporations and other organizations do when faced with this problem: Offer an ineffectual response that is more about ass-covering than genuinely working to reduce the rate of sexual harassment.

"Going forward, the House will adopt a policy of mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all Members and staff," Ryan said in a statement. "Our goal is not only to raise awareness, but also make abundantly clear that harassment in any form has no place in this institution.”

Ah, sexual harassment training: The go-to solution that every corporation turns to when questions arise about sexualized abuse and discrimination in the workplace. Everyone gets filed into a room and watches some videos or slides that define what harassment is. Maybe there's a Q&A session and some uncomfortable laughter. Then everyone pats themselves on the back about how much more knowledge they had than before, when these grown adults were apparently unaware of rules like "Keep your hands to yourself" and "Don't be a jerk to your colleagues."

The grim fact of the matter is that, most of the time, sexual harassment training doesn't work. As Vicki J. Magley and Joanna L. Grossman explained at Scientific American last week, research shows that harassment training has little if any effect on people's understanding and attitudes. In many cases, it actually backfires. One study showed managers were more confused about what constitutes harassment than they were before the training. Another found that men were more likely to blame victims of harassment after attending a seminar.

“Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability," the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted in a 2016 report.

The problem with most sexual harassment training is that it starts from the wrong premise, which is that harassment stems from ignorance rather than actual malice. The idea is that if you just tell everyone that it's wrong to grope, badger or bully your coworkers, they'll say, "Oh crap, I had no idea! Thanks, boss, you just saved me from making a terrible mistake."

In reality, most sexual harassers already know their conduct is wrong — and that's why they do it. The transgressive and powerful feeling one can get from bullying another person and getting away with it is exciting, which is why many of these stories feature men who do this again and again, often escalating their behavior to see how much more they can get away with. That they are acting out of malice and not ignorance is also demonstrated by the measures harassers take to avoid being exposed, which can range from waiting until no one is looking to the kind of intimidation tactics that both Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. have been accused of employing to silence alleged victims.

Training is a solution that organizations turn to not because it works, but because it's a way to look like they're doing something without ruffling any feathers. The solution that actually has a chance of working, on the other hand, is difficult and stressful, and often requires confronting people with a lot of power who will fight back: Supporting women who speak out and holding harassers accountable for their behavior.

Right now, many workplaces have a culture of silence around sexual harassment, built up because confronting the people responsible is deeply uncomfortable and, in cases where the abusers are powerful, comes with considerable risk. The EEOC report found that 75 percent of women who spoke up against harassment experienced retaliation for doing so. Silencing victims and shielding abusers from consequences simply feels easier in most cases, so that's what happens. Which means a lot of people are sitting through mandatory sexual harassment trainings and being told what behaviors are unacceptable -- while also knowing there's nothing they can actually do if they experience these problems.

Trainings can help, if they are paired with policies that make it safe for victims to speak out and if there are consequences for those who commit offenses. But without those latter two components, harassment trainings are little more than an exercise in insulting the intelligence of employees, most of whom learned in kindergarten that it's bad manners to behave like a bully or touch other people without permission.

The other solution is also one that asks a lot more of men than "sit in a training you barely listen to." As Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev at the Harvard Business Review explain, "harassment flourishes in workplaces where men dominate in management and women have little power." The solution, then, is to get more women into high-powered, well-paid, management-level jobs. This also happens to be the solution that is most fair, as there's no evidence that men as a class are more capable of doing these jobs than women.

In his statement, Ryan vaguely promised that "we will continue our review to make sure the right policies and resources are in place to prevent and report harassment." Congressional staff needs more than vague promises. Currently, sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill discourage reporting and strong-arm complainants into public silence, shielding harassers from serious consequences. If this supposed "review" doesn't result in a drastic change that involves career-damaging or career-ending consequences for harassers, then it won't work. Harassers already know what they're doing is wrong. The way to stop them is to make them understand they will face serious and lasting consequences if they keep on doing it.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Al Franken Paul Ryan Roy Moore Sexual Harassment Sexual Harassment Training