Last week, Googlers walked out over diversity issues and the internet giant’s handling of sexual harassment, and this week the company responded. Google CEO Sundar Pichai promised that the company will no longer be forcing arbitration in cases of sexual harassment, that it’s making gender and diversity a higher priority and improving reporting procedures, and that it’s expanding its sexual harassment training. None of these proposed solutions are going to transform Google’s workplace, but expanding sexual harassment training may create even more problems than it solves.
In a note to the company, Pichai wrote “We will update and expand our mandatory sexual harassment training. From now on if you don’t complete your training, you’ll receive a one-rating dock in Perf.” Perf refers to the Google performance review system.
Not only is sexual harassment training not particularly effective at reducing harassment, but it can have some unintended side effects that may make the situation worse for female employees. For example, sexual harassment training can reinforce gender stereotypes, exactly the opposite of what Google is trying to achieve. Research by Justine Tinkler indicates that there is an increase in gender stereotyping with even a minimal amount of harassment training. She told the New York Times, “It puts women in a difficult position in terms of feeling confident and empowered in the workplace.”
I have found a similar result in my own research. Simply watching a sexual harassment prevention training video left viewers with the impression that women were emotionally weak. I believe that this is because 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.
I’ve also found that heightened awareness of harassment is leaving many employees overly cautious in interactions with the opposite sex. It’s creating a barrier between men and women at work that I call the sex partition.
Here’s how the sex partition makes work more difficult for women. Imagine an executive asks a same-sex employee to join him or her for coffee or for a beer after work. A friendship may develop, and perhaps a mentor relationship as well. However, if the same executive invites an opposite-sex employee to join him or her for coffee or a beer, it’s a different story. Suspicions are raised and motivations are questioned. In a male-dominated work environment like Google, women must be able to network with men to get ahead, and anything that limits cross-sex interaction hinders women’s progress.
Since #Metoo, the sex partition has gotten worse. Men get nervous when they’re alone with other women, and there’s evidence that men are even avoiding one-on-one meetings with women. Women, as a result, miss out on connecting with senior managers (mostly male) and have difficulty finding mentors that can boost advancement. Harassment training can exacerbate this situation if the training leaves participants feeling as if they should be cautious in their interactions with the opposite sex.
If harassment training increases gender stereotyping and impacts women’s networking opportunities, one hopes it at least reduces harassing behavior. Sadly, there is little evidence this is true. 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. Yet another study found that the training was least effective for those who equated masculinity with power. In other words, it was least effective for those who need it most.
For Google, just increasing sexual harassment training and mandating attendance will not improve things and could make the situation worse. But that doesn’t mean they should give up.
Training is important, but it is the quality of the training, not the quantity that is key. Yes, Google should provide training to employees, but not just any training. Google has the resources and brains to figure out how to do training right. The training they want (and need) is not available off-the-shelf. If Google is going to expand harassment training, it must work to create effective training that will bring about a true cultural shift. But it won’t be easy. And they’ll need to assess and reassess the training to make sure it is effective and that there are no unintended consequences.
Without a complete overhaul, offering more sexual harassment training is merely providing lip service to the issue. Women deserve to work in an environment free from harassment and gender stereotypes, where men and women can maintain appropriate boundaries at work and develop professional friendships and mentor relationships. The promises Google is making right now will not get them there.