GVSU professor engaging emotional empathy to foster greater understanding of sexual harassment

Despite progress made by the #metoo movement, sexual assault and sexual harassment remain a prevalent issue. Based on a 2019 national study by Stop Street Harassment, 81% of women and 43% of men across the United States reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime. More so, about 5 million employees are sexually harassed at work every year, and yet, 99.8% of those victims never file a sexual harassment charge, according to 2018 research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
 
As an ethics professor for Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and director of the Koeze Business Ethics Initiative in the Seidman College of Business, Michael DeWilde knew too well that most sexual harassment and misconduct training involved a more intellectual-based approach, such as watching training videos. But while cognitive empathy and placing yourself in another person’s shoes is important, DeWilde saw one aspect missing in most training methods – the emotional empathy – which refers to feeling the other person’s emotions in addition to understanding another’s point of view.
 
To achieve this goal of emotional empathy, roleplaying and virtual reality programs are two approaches that DeWilde says have been popularized among companies and schools because it allows people to be given real-life examples of harassment scenarios. While introducing roleplaying to his undergraduate and graduate classes, DeWilde’s goal was for both men and women to put on the proverbial shoes of a sexual harassment victim.

“Men are certainly subject to harassment, but not as much as how women tend to be perpetrated,” DeWilde says. “If every man in my class put on the shoes of my female students, we can help everybody gain a better sense of what it really feels like to have to deal with that harassment and then think about ways to respond to that.”

Because this type of roleplaying may pose a risk in making some students uncomfortable, participation in DeWilde’s method has no effect on students’ grades and was approved by the Institutional Review Boards at GVSU and Texas Tech University, where pilot studies were tested for its effectiveness. 

By creating a safe environment where students engage in these voluntary scenarios, DeWilde noticed a large gender disparity between the students who shared personal stories of experiencing sexual advancements, offhand remarks, and being dismissed, objectified, or ridiculed at the workplace or school setting.
 
“What dawned on me is that the women already know all this stuff because they have had to deal with this for most of their lives or working lives, unfortunately,” DeWilde says. “The men tended to be more oblivious about just how pervasive it was and the coat of armor that a lot of women have to put on every day.”
 
Dewilde even admits to feeling overwhelmed when he first heard what his female students had to face because this was something he never had to deal with. According to that same study by Stop Street Harassment, the impact that sexual harassment and assault have on people, especially women, can result in feelings of anxiety or depression and disruptions in their day-to-day routine. 
 
Because DeWilde saw that women experienced these types of unwanted situations more often with long-lasting effects, his lessons are more aimed at helping the men understand how to be mindful of what you say, as well as how you say it, and the best approaches to intervene when a bystander sees sexual harassment or assault occurring, such as asking the victim if there is anything he or she can do, encouraging upper-level management to be trained on proper procedures, and ensuring a sexual misconduct reporting process is documented and well-advertised.
 
“By practicing it in the classroom, it helps students learn to speak up, say what they want to say, and give them some skills to intervene in a way that’s actually productive,” DeWilde says. “Because it engages more than just the cognitive facilities through engaging the emotions as well, people feel invested in the learning process and feel strongly about trying to figure out what are some of the better and worse responses would be. There’s no hard evidence that it works every time in all situations, but observationally and anecdotally, my students come back and say, ‘This was the most valuable part of the class and really helped me in a number of situations.’”

Photo courtesy Grand Valley State University.
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