Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

In response to the landmark Respect@Work report, the government has announced it will fund sexual harassment education and training programs for a wide range of people, from school kids to professionals and judges.

On the surface, this seems like a good thing. But overlaying harassment education in environments and workplaces that are already hostile can sometimes make sexual harassment worse, leading to victim blaming, increased inequality and backlash.

Victim blaming

No one thinks that sexual harassment training is for them, so it’s easy to see how mandatory training can be viewed as a waste of time. The men who are most likely to harass are also the ones least likely to see its value. Early US studies have shown that while sexual harassment training may increase knowledge and awareness, it made men less likely to respond to sexual harassment and more likely to blame the victim.

Many men who have completed sexual harassment training think women are overemotional, weak and passive. It reinforces their sense of superiority — the very stereotypes that can make women the target of harassment in the first place.

These effects of training can create a backlash. After all, you wouldn’t have to do it if women weren’t “oversensitive” and incapable of standing up for themselves or taking a joke!

Studies even indicate that when diversity training is conducted by a woman or a person of colour, the backlash is worse because the trainers are seen as less competent.


Over the past decade and more, many well-meaning organisations have been trying to prevent and respond to sexual harassment through three key measures: policies, training and grievance procedures.

They have been advised to do so for compliance with the law in employer guidelines by the Australian Human Rights Commission, and the Federal Court has backed this up. If employers do not have this holy trinity of compliance, they will be liable for the behaviour of their harassing employees.

But what this leads to is box-ticking. Money may roll through the human resources department and businesses may stick their names on a generic sexual harassment policy, but there’s no meaning attached to these measures.

The training that is rolled out is mandatory, standardised and online, with multiple-choice questions. More ticking of boxes. And the harassment continues.

Evidence-based solutions

So, what’s the solution? Training run by senior white men, further reinforcing their authority and emotional superiority? Trainers that exhort their mates to be nice to their oversensitive lady colleagues in case they overreact? Tell the jokes in private, hire other men who “fit” the culture and keep the harassment rates low by hiring fewer women?

There is a better way. A key phrase in the Respect@Work recommendations needs to be burned into our brains when it comes to sexual harassment education and training: it should be evidence-based. While we don’t know exactly what will prevent sexual harassment (and the government should fund some Australian research), there is what I call a “research-informed” approach.

A research-informed response tells us we need policies and training that are authentic, backed by management and fit the values of the organisation.

A policy that presents sexual harassment in its three aspects — an issue of equality, violence, and workplace health and safety — can still emphasise the most institutionally meaningful of these (sadly, the gender-neutral workplace health and safety aspect seems to garner the least hostility).

The trick is to connect it to your own industry and workplace. An IT start-up? “A positive, safe workplace culture fosters innovation.” A financial services firm? “Our customers need to engage with an organisation that highlights integrity.”

Training on the policy should then connect to these values. It should be clear that it is supported through leadership. It should be in-person and interactive and reinforced in multiple ways over time. It should be anchored in principles of non-discrimination.

And when it comes to who should deliver the training for maximum impact? Let’s have senior men doing what they need to be doing right across society — and in Parliament — now: standing alongside, and backing up, a woman who delivers the message with her own authority.

Karen O’Connell is an associate professor in the law department of University Technology Sydney and previously worked at the Australian Human Rights Commission.