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What’s the Deal With Sexual Harassment AI?

Image: William Iven from Unsplash

Details of widespread and recurring instances of sexual harassment have marred Hollywood, as people ranging from actors to directors have allegedly created uncomfortable work environments by orchestrating various forms of sexual harassment.

Hollywood is certainly not the only place this kind of behavior takes place, and many people say the spotlight that has illuminated the matter has made it easier for victims to speak up about their experiences and realize they’re not alone instead of keeping the matters private forever.

Technology companies now also use AI to make it easier for victims of sexual harassment to report incidents. Here’s how.

Technology Seeks to Improve the Sexual Harassment Problem

Tech companies are trying to increase the likelihood of people reporting sexual harassment by offering platforms powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that let those affected provide the details of what happened, either anonymously or by giving names. They can then transfer that information to human resources departments.

A few of these apps include:

· Spot: Spot is a chatbot that uses the same technique as police, called cognitive interviewing, to help people give accounts of their experiences. It uses AI to process the information the user provides and determine which questions to ask to fill in the gaps. Because it’s a bot, it doesn’t ask biased questions, and its chatbot functionality keeps it user-friendly. As such, this kind of AI might one day be part of the list of things AI can do better than humans.

· Callisto: This app is geared toward college students and lets them file encrypted reports. The app serves as a neutral third-party platform that users communicate through when describing what occurred.

After writing their report, users have several options. They can send it to campus leadership or download it. They can also use the app’s matching feature, which uses AI to identify offenders multiple users have filed reports about. When submitting their report, they can choose to send it to authorities only if other users have identified the same perpetrator, resulting in a match.

· AllVoices: Employees can use AllVoices to anonymously report harassment, bias and other issues in the workplace. AllVoice then anonymizes and compiles these reports before sending them to senior leadership. The company will even follow up later to see if the filing led to changes.

AllVoices bypasses the HR department and sends reports directly to the CEO of a company. Some have expressed concerns that, because HR is not involved, the person receiving the news might not know how to react to it.

Sexual Harassment Is Especially Common in Some Industries

Such AI sexual harassment reporting technologies could be helpful in sectors where mistreatment is so widespread that it’s almost typical. A study of women in the entertainment industry found that 94 percent of them had experienced sexual harassment or assault during their careers. The research also discovered that only one in four women reported the incidents.

On top of this, sexual harassment is rampant in industries that still lack adequate gender diversity, such as tech. Only 5 percent of women hold tech jobs at start-ups, which is indeed a small percentage.

Even so, people like Sheryl Sandberg and Gwynne Shotwell are paving the way in the tech sector as a whole and proving females have what it takes to thrive.

A survey of female company founders in the tech sector found, though, that 78 percent of the women who participated experienced sexual misconduct.

Reporting Alone Doesn’t Help Victims Process Their Incidents

Initially, an AI app that lets people report sexual harassment sounds very handy. However, they also have some significant limitations.

A study from Sweden that examined why some women freeze during sexual misconduct found that 38 percent of sexual assault victims received PTSD diagnoses afterward, and health providers told 22 percent that they were depressed. After reporting the incident, it’s crucial that victims get the emotional and psychological help they need.

Talking to other people helps victims process what they’ve gone through, but that won’t take place when individuals merely report what happened to a machine. Using an AI program to report an incident has to be one part of a larger process.

Workplace Representatives Don’t Always Respond Properly

Sadly, many women who reported their incidents — through any available means, not just AI — found that it didn’t result in meaningful outcomes. Going back to the study about women in the entertainment industry, only 28 percent of people said the situations got better after disclosure.

Moreover, another investigation of the tech sector revealed that one in five respondents felt their workplaces didn’t take sexual harassment allegations seriously. There are also worrisome statistics that show 75 percent of people who speak up about such issues face retaliation. Sometimes they also get involved in legal battles afterward or find HR managers don’t even write down reported problems.

Does AI Facilitate Sexual Harassment?

Even though we now have AI that can help people shine a light on sexual harassment incidents, other types of AI seems to validate the behavior. A study published in 2017 found the AI virtual assistants such as Alexa and Cortana didn’t always shut down sexually explicit comments and sometimes even encouraged them.

In early 2018, Amazon made Alexa refuse to engage after hearing such comments. But, some people argued that the AI should defiantly stand up against sexual harassment.

Pros and Cons of Technology

Almost every technology has seemingly excellent qualities but isn’t without potential issues — AI sexual harassment reporting falls into that category. It could help people feel more comfortable about speaking up, but it’s only part of the solution. To really make a change, other processes need to be put in place as well to help victims and change cultures.