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  • 6th Mar 2020

More than a few bad apples? What behavioural science tells us about reducing sexual harassment


With Harvey Weinstein’s recent conviction for sexual crimes, it feels like some progress has been made towards taking sexual harassment more seriously. As behavioural scientists working on gender equality, we try to understand how to best combat sexual harassment in the workplace – and whether it is, indeed, about more than just a few bad apples. 

We have been struck by psychology Professor Betsy Levy Paluck’s remarks that the media presents sexual harassment as being committed by a small group of serial perpetrators, like Harvey Weinstein. This distracts us from the important role of the environment in enabling sexual harassment to happen – or to be prevented. 

The idea that some people are inevitable harassers and others are not is appealing because it takes responsibility away from organisations to create holistic change. It also excuses the broader employee population, even though every one of us contributes to the cultures we are part of. 

Behavioural science shows it is about more than just a few bad apples. Any workplace can create an environment that allows sexual harassment to happen.

Which environmental factors encourage sexual harassment and abuse?

Perceived norms. People respond to their environment and what seems to be the norm in the group. People look to others to know, for example, ‘Do I get away with making sexual jokes and comments in conversations at work?’. A survey published this International Women’s Day found that 28% of British men think it’s ok to tell sexual jokes at work compared with 16% of women. If a behaviour goes uncontested by peers or the organisation, this sends the signal that it’s okay. 

Power imbalance. It is easy to underestimate how anyone would behave if they were dropped into a position of higher or lower relative power. One study found that most women predicted they would challenge a job interviewer asking inappropriate sexual questions, but in a real job interview scenario no one did. These dynamics can be further aggravated by our tendency to underestimate how hard it is for someone else to say no.    

Underreporting. Sexual harassment is greatly underreported in the workplace with as little as 4% reported to employers. Many people do not identify their own or others’ experiences as harassment. This can hide the full extent of sexual harassment in organisations, allowing harassment to happen without consequence, reducing the motivation to tackle harassment, and making leadership less accountable. 

What does this mean for designing behavioural interventions?

Go beyond training. Mandatory training can backfire and voluntary training only attracts the already engaged. To achieve change, you need a holistic approach that includes strong policies, training to increase understanding and signal norms, clear reporting and response mechanisms, leadership buy-in and clear messaging about norms by influential messengers.

Set positive social norms. Involving employees in creating and implementing solutions means that peers become champions of change, with the added benefit of creating more appropriate localised solutions. Framing solutions positively, i.e. what people should do rather than not do, helps engage a wider audience. Communicating that positive behaviour is the norm increases positive behaviour, where highlighting the existence of negative behaviour can backfire.

Identify influencers. To prevent sexual harassment, identify who people pay attention to, then use these influencers to help shift social norms. Invite them to take ownership and come up with authentic messages. Sometimes the influencers are senior leaders, sometimes they are other visible members in the workplace. 

Transparent reporting. Make it easy for employees to report sexual harassment. This includes providing simple and regular signposting to reporting tools, defining harassment with specific behaviours, and both formal (e.g. HR) and informal routes (e.g. peer support). Make the range of options clear to employees considering reporting for how the organisation could respond to a case of sexual harassment. Beware of ‘zero tolerance’ approaches, as these can put off employees from reporting. Collect data on the prevalence of sexual harassment in your organisation through anonymous staff surveys.

Use this International Women’s Day as an opportunity to engage with your staff or senior leaders about the importance of tackling sexual harassment. At BIT, we will continue working with the Government Equalities Office to help spread the word on evidence-based approaches. 

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