by Sharon Florentine

Education key to combating gender discrimination

Mar 29, 2016
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

A recent Elephant in the Valley survey shows that sexism, discrimination and harassment are prevalent in the Silicon Valley. But another survey reveals that awareness and education around gender sensitivity can help reduce bias, discrimination and harassment as well as increase reporting and satisfactory resolutions.

Sparked by the Ellen Pao vs. KPCB trial last year, seven women came together to gather stories and data around issues of feedback and promotion, inclusion, unconscious biases, motherhood and harassment and safety. Their study, The Elephant in the Valley, was fielded from February 2015 to April 2015 and surveyed 210 women who had more than 10 years experience in the IT field.

The findings were depressing, though not surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention: 90 percent witnessed sexist behavior at company off-site meetings or industry conferences; 87 percent have received demeaning comments from male colleagues and 60 percent reported receiving unwanted sexual advances — 65 percent say they’ve received unwanted sexual advances from a colleague.

But another survey from Bridge conducted by corporate learning management software company Instructure, released March 2015, polled approximately 1,000 working men and women worldwide. It offers a glimmer of hope: There’s a strong correlation between comprehensive gender, bias and sexual harassment prevention training and positive outcomes (i.e. declining rates of discrimination and harassment in the workplace).

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Training works

According to the survey, 71 percent of employees who have not been sexually harassed at work say their company offers effective training programs around gender sensitivity. Even when sexual harassment does occur, 94 percent of employees say the matter is resolved satisfactorily when their employer has an effective training program in place.

Still, there’s room for improvement. Only 34 percent of men and 31 percent of women found their gender sensitivity trainings to be very effective, the survey says. What’s more, 35 percent of employees aren’t required to participate in gender sensitivity training at all.

Harassment increases when training’s not effective

This matters because the number of employees who have been sexually harassed goes up when their exposure to effective training goes down, according to the survey.

“Can training make a difference in changing perceptions in the workplace? The survey says absolutely. If everyone’s informed and made aware of issues like unconscious bias as well as overt discrimination, the incidence rates go down,” says Jeff Weber, senior vice president of people and places at Instructure.

It’s not just that most people were unaware that these incidents were happening, Weber adds, there’s also a huge mindset shift that’s happening at the C-level about how important it is to rectify the problem, he says. When people are made aware not just that discrimination and harassment exist, and that they can be part of efforts to eradicate them, change starts to happen, Weber says.

“It’s not just training and education, but it’s also a mindset shift – if there’s a comprehensive education platform and if everyone’s required to invest time and energy into completing these programs, then that shows the company is serious about making change. There’s determination and commitment to addressing the issues,” he says.

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Satisfactory resolution

Another positive statistic from the survey shows that, when comprehensive, effective gender sensitivity training programs exist, reporting of incidents increases; so too, does satisfactory resolution: 94 percent of respondents who were sexually harassed and reported the incident within organizations that had gender sensitivity training and resolution processes in place say they were satisfied with how the issue was resolved.

“That’s huge — 94 percent report that their sexual harassment complaint was satisfactorily resolved. We were thrilled to see that when people have effective education and training plans in place, they are more willing to speak up. The survey showed us that 69 percent who feel their training and education is insufficient just don’t report these incidents. That means we’re making an impact and that these issues are taken seriously, not just getting swept under the rug,” Weber says.

Translating the survey results into action means organizations need to get on board with comprehensive gender sensitivity training and make a vocal commitment to greater transparency and openness about these issues, Weber says. There should also be efforts to make learning and training a part of everyday work life, so it’s not seen as out-of-the-ordinary or a distraction from daily responsibilities.

“This can’t be the usual type of once-a-year compliance methodology where you can skim some materials, check a box and be done. You have to normalize these initiatives and make them part and parcel of their life at work. Leadership has to get behind the values of diversity and inclusion, and make sure they’re presenting really good, really effective solutions so that everyone understands how important these issues are,” he says.

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