What Happens Now? Studies of Sexual Harassment Can Show the Way

Academics have been cast in a slow-motion horror movie for the past couple of years, as superstar scientist after superstar scientist has been pushed from his pedestal for allegations of sexual harassment. Societies and universities have tried to determine what to do—academe-style fixes like panels, workshops, and policies.

None of that ivory-tower work cued the public crescendo that this year’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein did. Since that first October investigation, numerous high-profile harassers have been publicly condemned. And informal information-gathering, from the #MeToo movement to grassroots Google surveys, have further demonstrated the scope of the problem. By now, by virtue of these individual stories, it’s hard to disbelieve sexual harassment happens, with all its attendant personal and professional consequences.

But there’s another way to learn about sexual harassment: scientific studies. They, and their cold hardness, have something to add to the individual experiences we’ve read about this year—the world-shaking indictments of public figures and spreadsheets of collective grievances. And they can help chart a course forward, through the choppy wake of 2017.

Researchers like Kate Clancy are doing that systematic work. Clancy has performed both interview-based, qualitative and quantitative survey studies, the likes of which can provide harassment’s prevalence within a field, and reveal its common characteristics.

That’s important, because the stories that make headlines aren’t necessarily the standard ones. “The sample we see in the media is skewed compared to what the data tells us,” says Clancy. In reality, harassment happens most to minorities and people in vulnerable positions. And most gender-based harassment isn’t sexual: It’s the guy who calls you a bitch when you point out that he interrupted you, it’s the dude who tells that joke about how periods make the girls crazy, it’s the boss who says you’re reacting emotionally when he’s the one yelling. According to a 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, existing research shows that, in random samples of employees, 25 percent of women said they had experienced sexual harassment. Change that to gender gender harassment and yeses rocket to 60 percent.

Importantly, those numbers can change depending on how the questions are framed. In research where surveyors ask employees whether they have experienced specific behaviors—behaviors that constitute sexual harassment—that 25 percent rose to 40 percent. “People are understandably unwilling to name their experience,” Clancy says. “A term like ‘sexual harassment’ is a legal term.” That’s part of what some of this year’s ad-hoc, anonymously circulated surveys have succeeded in revealing: that it can be more effective to collect experiences without labels. (Guess what? Social scientists already knew that.)

Reporters can’t write stories about each of those millions of women; without surveys, the big picture would remain like a pointillist painting viewed up close. Without research, we also wouldn’t know that minority women experience the most harassment; that peers harass those who don’t conform to gender stereotypes (trans people, or power-suited women who don’t silently put up with mistreatment); and that women and people of color experience more content-neutral “incivility” than men and white people.

Clearly, the cascade of events in 2017 has upped motivation to deal with sexual harassment. Most of the visible change, so far, has been the important but relatively symbolic action of firing a bad actor. Removing one guy, bad as he may be, won’t solve entrenched problems. And neither will on-paper policies and procedures that mostly serve to legally protect workplaces.

Research, though, can point the way toward a world written in a better way.

Pyschologist Vicki Magley studies not just the existence of harassment but also the “what now?” of it—the effectiveness of policies, trainings, and cultural changes that might actually make people be excellent to each other. That work requires drawing a baseline of badness (or goodness!), and then seeing how high the bar can be raised. “You don’t know where you’ve gone if you don’t know where you were,” says Magley.

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The first challenge there is getting access. To do her work effectively, Magley needs to go into actual workplaces, and get reads from real people. But that’s proven difficult. “[Organizations] won’t let sexual harassment researchers in to study this topic,” she says, “because they view it as a liability.”

For one recent study, Magley was about to start measuring a training’s effectiveness, and then the company cut her off. “Legal got hold of it and said, ‘Ain’t no way,’” she says. For the research to level up, organizations have to let researchers do their jobs.

When she can get inside, Magley’s years in the field have shown some of what can improve workplaces, like convincing employees that procedures aren’t just in place to protect the company. “Try to impress upon employees that this training is in place truly for the well-being of the employees,” says Magley, “not to check the liability check-box.”

When first asked how to change employees’ cynicism, Magley laughs and says, “Good luck!” Then, though, she says it’s largely about messaging. Organizations should communicate their commitment to no-harassment hallways.

The EEOC report suggests they can do that not just with words—with weight, like appropriately strong penalties for harassment, and immediate, thorough investigations—ones that aren’t simply meant to discredit and minimize those who filed complaints. And from the best-suited executives to the middlest of managers, those in charge can culture a culture in which harassment isn’t put up with (and respect and civility are smiled upon), and do so in a way that sounds, looks, and verbs the same.

There’s far more work to be done. Ideally, employers want to stop sexual harassment among their ranks, rather than simply not go to court. But organizations gonna organization. And sometimes, they need external motivation. Law professor Joanna L. Grossman argues that perhaps employers should be punished if their “adequate” policies and procedures nevertheless let harassment in. Future in-office research could look deeply at the effectiveness of that strategy.

It could also look at the effectiveness of the bottom-line argument. “People are quitting jobs. People are turning down promotions,” says Magley. “Women are doing these things—to avoid harassers, known harassers.” In other words, companies are losing out on money, and good work (which, turns out, women do!). But how much money and work requires more quantification. “We don’t have good research that is field-based on understanding the productivity costs of sexual harassment,” says Magley. We could have more of that research—someone just has to do it.

Future study could also do more to measure the effect of non-radical honesty on harassment rates. According to the EEOC’s review, there is value in punishment and publicity, in addition to prophlyaxis. “If weak sanctions are imposed for bad behavior, employees learn that harassment is tolerated,” says the report. Instead of keeping quiet about complaints, organizations should try truth: Companies that created “a culture of non-harassment,” says the EEOC reported, talked about successful complaints, “instead of burying the fact that there had been a complaint and that discipline had been taken.”

But for all of that knowledge gained, the systematic study of harassment hasn’t received much support. “It’s been frustrating to study an area that has been really minimized and trivialized,” says Magley. “The minimization of this research area is within academia as well as outside academia,” she says. When Magley submitted a paper to a recent conference, for instance, one reviewer responded thusly: It was a “timely” topic, but it probably wouldn’t attract a large audience. The paper was rejected.