The past month’s mandates for sexual harassment training in both the Senate and House appeared to be a victory in the fight against sexual misconduct.
As someone who leads workshops to limit sexual misconduct on a university campus, I eagerly took the publicly-available training myself.
Representative Jackie Speier appears in a welcome video touting her hopes that the training module will teach employees how to “identify and stop sexual harassment,” a reasonable goal.
Yet after taking the half-hour module, the only thing I learned was how to label sexual harassing behavior, which does nothing to actually prevent it. This training failed to teach me any skills that actually stop sexual harassment.
If Congress is to take sexual harassment in the workplace seriously, it must acknowledge the research that reveals trainings like the one Congress just mandated actually do little to prevent it. With the power to set the tenor of our national discussion, Congress cannot settle for just explaining legal definitions in this moment of heightened awareness.
Congress must lead the country in changing the very culture that enables sexual disrespect and harassment in the first place.
Consider the test case that accompanies the congressional training: “Chloe,” a congressional staffer, often receives compliments on her appearance from her Chief of Staff, a man. Coworkers have observed him hug Chloe on at least two separate occasions in the past six months.
On three occasions, Chloe received a late-night text from the chief of staff complimenting her on the outfit she had worn that day.
In one case, Chloe suspected he was intoxicated when he sent the text.
According to the module, behavior must be “pervasive and/or severe” to fulfill a hostile work environment claim.
The module then asks, “Are these actions severe? Are these actions pervasive?” and prompts a yes or no response.
The module tells the user that the correct answer is “no,” so the Chief of Staff is unlikely to face any consequences.
However, these behaviors still impact the professional environment – tolerating them tells everyone it is acceptable to objectify a coworker, as long as you’re polite about it and don’t do it too often.
By not addressing the low-level sexual disrespect described in the training, those behaviors are normalized, which creates a culture that will tolerate escalation into higher levels of harassment and assault.
This pattern has been laid bare this week: a report published by the Times last Monday exposed rampant sexual harassment throughout Congress, including many instances of the “lawful” behavior outlined in the training.
Sure enough, these behaviors escalated as well: Representative Speier recently revealed that two sitting representatives have groped staff on the House floor.
Forget being unbecoming of Congress, this behavior is unbecoming of any decent human being. If Congress is serious about preventing sexual harassment, the established culture of sexual disrespect must be changed.
Research shows that efforts focused solely on labeling behaviors or changing the behavior of potential perpetrators are ineffective at engaging participants to change. What has proven effective is changing the broader culture that supports sexual misconduct.
Two methods bring success in changing a community’s culture: engaging the community in a conversation about a shared set of acceptable behaviors, and empowering bystanders to intervene when behaviors occur outside the established norms.
The workshops I facilitate in my graduate and professional student community leverage both of these methods to promote culture change on campus.
Through scenarios, participants discuss the impacts of various low-level instances of sexual disrespect. As a facilitator, I lead participants to identify behaviors and attitudes in their community that enable sexual disrespect and teach them the skills to change their culture for the better.
Ultimately, culture is shaped by every member of a community; everyone shares the responsibility to improve it.
While the scenarios I facilitate are designed for a graduate student body, their principles are universal.
Congress should be seeking out trainings that can have a real and positive effect on improving workplace climate, like the one I facilitate.
Congress has this obligation not just to its own employees, but as our country’s leaders, to set an example for us all.
By repudiating the dangerous culture that already exists, Congress can lead the country in establishing a new one.
A culture that supports and welcomes all to a community is a culture that will stop sexual harassment before it can even start.
Stephen D. Albright, a native of Saratoga Springs, is a Ph.D. candidate in physics and Title IX assistant in the Office of the Provost at Yale University.