We Don’t Take Sexual Harassment Seriously. Just Look at Our Training.
In addition to my day job, I have taught for several semesters as an adjunct professor at NYU. The state of New York recently passed a law mandating sexual harassment training, and I got an email from the university with a link to complete the required course. I followed directions, and an hour later, I wanted to cry.
The course was awful. It started with two visually dull, droning videos that mentioned a lot of regulations but were easy enough to tune out as I backgrounded the screen and answered emails and read Twitter. I then saw a series of scenarios, just words on a screen read aloud, with a quiz after each that a nine-year-old could have easily passed. The scenarios were laughably over the top and without an ounce of nuance and ambiguity. Again, I tuned out, and a few days later I couldn’t remember anything except for how bad it was.
And I’m not the only one. Sexual harassment training is a joke in many modern workplaces, something that you either skim through on a lunch break one day a year or a seminar that people fidget through while surreptitiously checking their phones. And because of the limitations of training in recent history, it was very hard to explore any sort of nuance, the types of situations that most women (and some men) experience. It is rare (although sadly not impossible) to experience the traditional type of harassment, where your boss promises to promote you if you come up to his hotel room. It is far more common to be out for drinks with colleagues and for someone to crack an off-color joke and to have to nervously laugh along because everyone else seems to be genuinely having a good time. It’s the microaggressions, not the macroaggressions, that add up and cause people to leave, or suffer silently.
The fact that we don’t take sexual harassment training seriously is symptomatic of the fact that we as a society don’t take women’s pain seriously. The very real trauma of being harassed and marginalized in a workplace is reduced to a glorified powerpoint, a way to tick a box so company lawyers can wash their hands of it. The fact that it is relegated to being a joke and seen as a waste of time is part of what leads powerful to think that what they’re doing when they mistreat women is just fine, because no one cares or puts in any effort.
There is a new way to make this training more empathetic, immersive, and memorable, but so far very few companies have been willing to make the commitment. Study after study has shown that training using virtual reality increases learning quality and retention by 75%; reduces training time by 40%; and results in a 70% performance improvement. Not only that, but high quality VR can lead to greater empathy and can allow people to notice nuances that are not present in current training.
Take the above example of the uncomfortable woman at a bar with her colleagues. In a video, that would be hard to translate, and most people would be so distracted they wouldn’t notice. In a text storyline, the blame would likely shift to the victim — after all, she should have spoken up rather than nervously laughing along. But in VR, you feel like you’re there and the uncomfortable body language becomes clear, even if her words don’t express her discomfort. In a good VR piece, the user can notice that and course correct, taking the impetus off the victim and making the speaker feel like they know how to deftly change the subject when someone is uncomfortable. Everyone wins.
And sure, it takes time and money to make great VR — but the cost of that is infinitely less than the bad press, lawsuits, and lost talent that come when people don’t take sexual harassment seriously. It’s time for responsible companies that are committed to helping women succeed and thrive to take this training seriously and invest. Otherwise, every time a woman goes through a bad sexual harassment training, she is being told she and her experiences don’t matter.