Don’t just stand there: bystanders can challenge sexism and sexual harassment

Don’t just stand there: bystanders can challenge sexism and sexual harassment

Despite the worryingly high prevalence of sexual harassment in our university campuses, most bystanders are reluctant to intervene when they see it happen. Turning these silent witnesses into ‘active bystanders’ has become the focus of new trial programs starting this year.

Alarm bells rang loudly in August 2017 with the startling revelation that a quarter of all university students had been sexually harassed in the preceding year either on campus, travelling to or from campus, at a university-related event off campus, or within university accommodation.

The findings were published in Change the Course, a national report into sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Significantly, 25 per cent of students said they had witnessed another student being sexually harassed, but a majority of them failed to take any action. In fact, only 21 per cent of this group took any form of action in response to sexual harassment, and 37 per cent in response to a sexual assault. According to the report, the most common reason given by students for their inaction was that they didn’t know what to do.


Funding the bystander project

Natalie Russell, Principal Program Officer, Mental Wellbeing with VicHealth, explains that, shortly before the release of the Change the Course report, the Department of Health and Human Services Victoria (DHHS) and VicHealth co-invested in a ‘Bystanders for Primary Prevention’ project to explore the barriers and enablers to active bystander behaviour, including whether a behavioural insights approach could make it easier for men and young adults  to take action.

We chose universities because there was a sense of readiness in them, which is an important aspect of what you need in putting together bystander approaches.

Deakin University consolidated current evidence into a knowledge paper called Bystanders for primary prevention: a rapid review. The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), an organisation experienced in using behavioural science thinking to improve public policy, then applied their expertise to the problem, identifying possible Victorian settings for bystander intervention including universities, public transport, workplaces, and hospitality venues such as pubs and bars. Further departmental funding was then provided to run pilot interventions in university settings, focusing on sexism and sexual harassment.

‘Because of the AHRC report and the recommendations of the Behavioural Insights Team, we chose universities as the first sites for interventions because there was a sense of readiness in them, which is an important aspect of what you need in putting together bystander approaches,’ explains Russell.

Starting from a low knowledge base

According to Dr Nicky Quinn, BIT’s project lead on the bystander project, corporations commonly introduce diversity training and other initiatives without looking to the evidence or rigorously testing the impact of initiatives after their introduction.

‘We now know that many of these interventions don’t work, or can even make things worse for women,’ Quinn says. 

Indeed, a recent study on the prevention of sexual harassment in US workplaces, training programs and reporting systems won’t end sexual harassment. Promoting more women will, found that anti-harassment training strategies can backfire by consolidating the attitudes of men already predisposed to harassing women. Other workplace strategies, such as consciously promoting women into influential roles and ensuring that senior male executives consistently reinforce anti-harassment messaging, are more effective.

While there is a considerable amount of research into bystander programs and their impact on sexual assault in US college campus settings (including a recent meta-analysis), the success of the approach in relation to sexism and sexual harassment has rarely been the subject of academic studies.

‘There is a massive gap,’ says Quinn. ‘There is very little known about what works to promote bystander action against sexism and sexual harassment.’

There is very little known about what works to promote bystander action against sexism and sexual harassment.

Filling the knowledge gap

 The trial phase of the Victorian bystander project aims to fill some of that knowledge gap, improving the implementation of bystander interventions in the future.

Two separate trials – at the University of Melbourne (UoM) and Victoria University (VU) – will explore whether behavioural insights approaches can produce more active bystanders against sexism and sexual harassment. The results of the trials, due to commence in 2019, will provide the first much-needed data on behavioural outcomes, particularly in an Australian context.

Last August’s one-year anniversary audit revealed that most Australian universities are currently well into the implementation of various strategies in response to the nine recommendations of the Change the Course report. Not only are they developing initiatives to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment in university settings, they’re also ensuring that those initiatives are monitored, measured and evaluated so that evidence-based improvements can be made over time.

Insert graphic: Australian universities are well into the implementation of strategies in response to the Change the Course report

Marian Cronin, VU’s Senior Manager, Respect & Responsibility, says that a range of initiatives have been implemented at the university after consultation among its 44,000-odd students, many of whom are first-in-family at university with a high representation of cultural diversity and refugee student cohorts. (Even before the release of the report, the university had published a ten point plan for preventing violence against women in the university context.)

Currently under evaluation is a VU Polytechnic-designed e-learning package called Act, Speak, Listen which includes modules of bystander education.

Also under way, with funding support under the Victorian Government’s Free from Violence strategy, is VU’s Momentum Project that aims to address issues on attitudes of culturally and linguistically diverse men aged 18 to 30 on sexism, violence against women, gender and equality ‘so they become change agents within the university, in their communities and in society as a whole,’ Cronin says.

Making intervention easier


Dr Celia Scott, UoM’s Policy & Strategy Advisor (Respect Initiative) said the university welcomed the opportunity to work on the bystander project.

‘We will be able to share expertise on what we hope will be an effective and tested tool that we can then roll out more generally across our university, across our different cohorts and areas. Other universities will then be able to use it as well because it has been designed for the Australian context.’

The methods being used in the trial were developed by BIT, with input from University of Melbourne students and staff to ‘ensure that it has an authentic voice and is something that will be listened to and heard,’ Scott says.

The aim is to give individuals the skills and the ‘social permission’ they need to intervene safely and effectively. For instance, someone might be able to defuse a sexist joke in the moment, or talk to an affected person afterwards when it’s private.

The project will also investigate the ‘environmental’ context, particularly the factors that slow down or prevent bystanders from taking action. As Quinn points out, there are many steps involved in intervention, from noticing the situation and assuming responsibility, to then deciding to help and having the confidence and capacity to help effectively.

The aim is to give individuals the skills and the ‘social permission’ they need to intervene safely and effectively.

Effective environmental change, Quinn explains, might involve removing some of those steps — making reporting of harassment easier or introducing regular check-ins to talk about sexual harassment on campus, for example, so that some of the burden of decision-making is removed from victims and bystanders.

These are changes, according to Quinn, that – like lobbying supermarkets to remove confectionery from checkout areas – create opportunities that don’t rely on the individual to make the right decision.

For Cronin it is ‘really important’ that the bystander project work be shared.

‘What we are wanting to do is impact the student cohort and society. That’s the ultimate aim – to change the prevalence of attitudes that directly and indirectly condone violence against women.’


VicHealth, Victoria University and the University of Melbourne acknowledge the Victorian Government’s support for the active bystander initiatives.

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