The challenges of sexual harassment reduction policies

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Tinkler teaser.jpgResearch by sociologist Justine Tinkler shows that workplace sexual harassment policies and training can reduce harassment but also have unintended consequences, including reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes and negative attitudes about women:

"The whole idea of trying to force a change in the way men and women interact with each other challenges the way that we think about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, so we can get resistance to that message in complicated ways," said Tinkler, an associate professor of sociology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. 

This spring, Tinkler served as an expert adviser during the National Academy of Sciences Workshop on Sexual Harassment, a public workshop that will supplement a study conducted by the National Academies on how sexual harassment influences the career advancement of women. The study aims to identify strategies that address sexual harassment, with a particular focus on reducing harassment of women in academia and science. Tinkler shared more than a decade's worth of research analyzing the effects of anti-harassment policy training.

"I think what distinguishes my work from others is that I've looked at how sexual harassment policy training affects people's beliefs about men and women," she said. 

Her presentation began with a summary of her first study on the topic that was published in 2008. The study analyzed survey data from federal employees and found that, in general, policy training increased the tendency to define sexual harassment more broadly but not for those who were most threatened by the policies. This finding prompted Tinkler to conduct observational research, interviews and several experiments in which participants were exposed to policy training information.

A key finding from the experiments was that policy training activates gender stereotypes and backlash against women, and this effect is strongest among men committed to traditional gender norms. The experiments also revealed that policy training could disempower women by emphasizing their vulnerability, and some women viewed taking sexual harassment training seriously as a sign of weakness. 

Crucial new insights that move beyond the very important need to reduce sexual harassament to assess how policies and training are working. Tinkler's work will help point the way to improving these methods as we continue to make strides toward more healthy work environments for all.

Image: Photo of associate professor Justine Tinkler by Dorothy Kozlowski