Q&A with Shannon Rawski, Assistant Professor in Organizational Behaviour
What is the official title of your research project?
Increasing Bystander Interventions during Sexual Harassment Incidents using Virtual Reality Methods
Who are your collaborators and where are they located?
Lucas Monzani, Joshua Foster, Barnini Bhattacharyya at Ivey Business School, and Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University.
When and where is your research being conducted?
We have been developing our stimulus materials (i.e., the VR simulation) for the last year. This process involved pretesting our written scenarios, then producing immersive videos and a platform for them to run on. We are in the process of designing our first studies and hope to collect data this summer either in the lab or in the field. Our first two studies will investigate (a) the interactive effects of organizational culture (manipulated in VR) and leader character on bystander intervention and (b) the effects of target intersectionality (gender and race) on bystander intervention.
Is this research funded by a larger program of research or a large grant?
Yes, through a SSHRC Insight Grant
Is this part of an ongoing collaboration?
For someone with no research experience, how would you describe the overarching concepts behind this article/project in the simplest terms possible? Tell me about your research in laymen’s terms.
There have been several theories about bystander intervention in workplaces, but many tenants have not bee sufficiently tested because certain factors are difficult to manipulate in the field (e.g., organizational culture) and because behavior in response to infrequent or taboo events (e.g., sexual harassment) is difficulty to observe. VR technology allows us to experimentally manipulate environments and interactions and more carefully test relationships proposed in past theories. We expect to observe that toxic organizational cultures that tolerate sexual harassment will decrease bystander intervention (compared to healthy cultures that do not tolerate sexual harassment), but that those higher in leader character will interpret these environments as needing leadership, and thus be more likely to intervene. We also expect that bystanders will be more likely to intervene on behalf of ingroup members (i.e., those who share their same demographic characteristics).
What was the motivation to speak specifically to this matter?
Sexual harassment is a problem in organizations, and bystander intervention has been suggested as a potential solution. However, my prior research shows that individuals are less likely to choose the interventions that are better able to stop harassment (e.g., confronting the harasser, reporting to a manager) tend to prefer nonconfrontational interventions (e.g., offering the target social support, causing a distraction to remove the target from the harassment situation). Additionally, we have very little direct observation of bystander intervention in true-to-life situations. VR technology will allow us to replicate a sexual harassment situation that feels real consistently across all participants and to directly observe bystander interventions within the simulation. This methodology allows for the control and causal inferences afforded by true experiments and the generalizability offered by field studies.
What is the most shocking or groundbreaking finding from your research?
So far, we only have pretest data of the written scenarios that are the basis of our VR simulation, but this early data shows that individuals are less likely to directly confront a harasser in toxic (compared to healthy) organizational cultures. However, this effect is attenuated by leader character, such that those high in leader character are likely to confront harassers even in a toxic culture. We expect to find a similar pattern, and a likely stronger effect once our scenarios are depicted in immersive VR.
What would you say is the biggest takeaway from your research and its impact on the world/community? How will you, personally, measure its impact?
That many factors affect bystander intervention and we cannot rely on bystanders to intervene without fully understanding under what conditions they will intervene. Once we identify those conditions, we can implement organizational interventions to establish those conditions, which should increase bystander intervention. Alternatively, we could train and develop bystanders to intervene even when those conditions are not present. At the end of the day, this research aims to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace through increased bystander intervention.
Does your research relate to any of the Critical Issues of the Ivey Next Strategy? The Principles of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Decolonization (EDI-D), or the Ivey Values (Integrity, Inclusivity, Community, and Courage)?
Yes, to the Future of Work and the principles of EDI-D.
Do you have other future plans for this research? Further translation or dissemination? If so, what are they?
We are presenting our pre-test data at the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology Annual Conference. I will also be participating in a caucus for VR research methodology at the Academy of Management Annual Conference. Ultimately, our goal is to publish our first two studies (and several others to follow) in FT50 journals.
If you had to sum up this research for the public in 140 characters, what would you say?
VR technology allows us to study difficulty topics like sexual harassment and bystander intervention with more precision and causal inference. Ultimately, advancing technology can lead to better research and better insights aimed at decreasing sexual harassment at work.