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  • Abi Karlin-Resnick, Executive Director

Want to stop workplace sexual harassment? Invest in good sex ed.

Health Connected is based in Redwood City, in the heart of Silicon Valley – the tech capital of the world. Each year, tech companies invest significant resources in establishing and sustaining computer science programs and coding experiences in Bay Area schools and camps. For these companies, this is not only an altruistic service to schools to ensure that young people have skills they’ll need for the jobs of the future, this is also about filling their future employee pipeline. Biotech companies, another staple of Silicon Valley, similarly invest significant resources in STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) for young people, recognizing that these subjects open doors for students’ critical thinking practices and future jobs, not to mention future biotech employees.

But why don’t these companies also think about how their workers will interact with each other once they get through that pipeline?

Over the last year or two, there have been several public reckonings about prominent instances of sexual misconduct in a variety of employment sectors – Hollywood, government, and in tech. Multiple Silicon Valley companies have been called to task for allowing a persistent culture of sexual misconduct. Emily Chang’s book, Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley, particularly highlights the pervasive nature of “bro culture” in Silicon Valley tech companies and their funders. But this behavior didn’t start when employees arrived at their first day of work at any of these tech companies. The culture of accepting, and engaging, in this behavior, started well before that – in one of our country’s largest institutions...schools.

Sexual misconduct (defined as harassment, assault, or rape of a sexual nature or based on an individual’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity) is at epidemic levels in United States educational institutions from kindergarten through higher education. This is nothing new, of course, but recent studies have called attention to the perniciousness of this problem and the potential impacts on students’ ability to learn. Attention began to be shown on this issue with a 2015 study by the American Association of Universities on sexual assault on college campuses. This study found that “11.7 percent of student respondents across 27 universities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since they enrolled at their university” (Cantor, et al., 2015).

The studies on sexual misconduct on college campuses have more recently been followed by an investigation of sexual misconduct on K-12 campuses by the Associated Press. The study showed college students don’t simply show up their freshman year "suddenly" engaging in sexual harassment or assault, but rather have been socialized throughout their elementary and secondary educational experiences to be perpetrators or victims of these behaviors. Based on the study’s analysis of data from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, nearly 17,000 reports of student-on-student sexual assaults were reported between 2011 and 2015 and involved students in every grade, K-12 (McDowell, et al., 2017). This shockingly high number is almost certainly under-reported because not all schools report sexual assaults, not all students report incidents of sexual assault to their school, and schools and states have different ways of defining sexual assault. And this study didn’t look at incidents of sexual harassment.

We often make the argument that we, as a society, should be investing in sex ed because it primarily helps young people prevent negative outcomes like unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection (STI) transmission, and sexual misconduct. Many also realize the immense positive impact it can have in helping youth build skills to cultivate healthy relationships.

If you’re not feeling altruistic, we can also make a legal argument for sex ed. In California, comprehensive sexuality education is mandatory in middle and high school under the California Healthy Youth Act. And at the Federal level, Title IX requires that schools may not discriminate against their students on the basis of sex. Title IX is often thought of in terms of sports teams, but there is extensive legal documentation about schools’ role in preventing a hostile environment from sexual harassment and assault. Comprehensive sex education plays a direct role in teaching youth about sexual violence, how to prevent it, and how to stop it – often before it happens.

But if the legal argument also won’t do, let’s make an economic argument. Not the economic argument against teen pregnancy that was prevalent in the 90s and early 2000s, which was ultimately used to blame teen parents for using public resources (despite the fact that it was really adult policy makers who abdicated their duty to give those young people the information and skills they needed to prevent early pregnancy). Let’s look at the economic argument for preventing sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Consider for a moment how much companies spend dealing with workplace harassment claims. A 2011 survey of 46 multinational corporations found that they spent $206,164 on average on compliance training annually, and millions more on other compliance activities (like investigations, risk analyses, and salaries for compliance officers).

If an organization does face a claim, there’s more to add up. Say they’re able to settle out of court; they’re still likely to pay between $75,000–$125,000 in legal fees alone. And if the organization does go to court, they’ll often be faced with twice that number in court and attorney fees – quite a financial burden, especially for small to mid-sized companies.

That is money that they are not using to invest in research and development, on innovating new products, on acquiring new companies. That is lost productivity for the individuals involved in those claims – the perpetrators, the victims, the human resources professionals, the attorneys. That is the time and energy spent either keeping those claims buried or dealing with the public relations ramifications, if those incidents were to become public. That is the additional energy required to hire new employees to fill the positions vacated by those who have experienced or perpetrated sexual misconduct. And while the data is not plentiful to paint the picture of exactly how much a sexual harassment claim can cost, there is no doubt that it is an expensive endeavor.

I will say it again. Employees don’t show up on Day One at their job ready to engage in sexual misconduct. In fact, I am inclined to believe that the vast majority of people who are involved in sexual harassment or assault in workplaces may not have even been aware that their behavior is unacceptable. They’ve been indoctrinated into a culture that has silently promoted it for generations.

Stopping this behavior doesn’t happen with a human resources-required video about sexual harassment or even a multi-day seminar on appropriate workplace behavior. These behaviors were established early on, when today’s employees were in elementary school - when they were watching their parents’ interact at home, when they were listening to misogynistic song lyrics on the way to school, when they saw their sister being cat-called. The Associated Press reports it starts as early as Kindergarten; I’d say it begins earlier.

If tech companies are serious about filling their pipelines with employees who have the skills they need to propel their companies forward with the newest innovations, then these companies also need to be filling their pipelines with employees who know how to interact with each other appropriately once they get there.

The most effective way to do that is to ensure that all young people have access to sexual health education that goes well beyond anatomy, contraception, and STIs. We also need to teach young people how to think critically about how their words and actions may be interpreted by others and the communication skills to discuss those experiences.

Maybe it’s time to think about investing in sex ed the same way companies think about investing in high school computer science – seeing it as a vital way to retain the best and brightest employees and keep the company’s name on the right side of the headlines.

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Health Connected equips young people with information, skills, and support to make thoughtful choices about their relationships and sexual health throughout their lives.