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How to be an active bystander

Research and Publications

This guide has been developed to help organisations introduce bystander initiatives as part of their work to reduce sexist and sexually harassing behaviours. It explains what bystander action is and outlines four key steps for implementing effective bystander initiatives.

Take Action: Empowering bystanders to act on sexist and sexually harassing behaviours (PDF, 384 KB)

In 2017, VicHealth, the Office for Women, Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Behavioural Insights Team explored the potential for applying behavioural insights theory to the problem of bystander inaction against sexism and sexual harassment.  The following resource was developed based on an understanding of current good practice in bystander action.

Two interventions were  trialed at two Victorian universities during 2018-2019, using two common ways of equipping university community members with the skills to be active bystanders. At the University of Melbourne, a wide population of staff and students were engaged using a ‘light-touch’ series of email communications. At Victoria University, a more narrow population of interested students took part in a more intensive online training program. 

The reports and tools on this page distill the findings and practice insights from these trials.

In 2020 with workplaces moving increasingly online due to coronavirus, we knew that experiences of sexism and sexual harassment required new responses specifically designed to address the new challenges faced by those working in virtual workplaces. A survey of Victorian workplaces was conducted and this report details findings on the prevalence of sexism and sexual harassment when working remotely, and the instances of and barriers to taking action in response.

The following tools have been designed to assist workplaces as they embed a proactive culture that effectively monitors and prevents sexism and sexual harassment. 

We know that someone who’s on the receiving end of inappropriate behaviour can find it difficult to confront the perpetrators. However, research shows that when a third party steps in and becomes an active bystander, it helps to discourage the perpetrator and emotionally support the victim. By speaking up, you can contribute to a culture that condemns sexist behaviours.

In workplaces, sexist behaviour could take the form of a crude joke, making unwanted approaches, or treating men and women differently for doing the same job. Whatever its form, sexist and sexually harassing behaviour hurts both individuals and organisations.

It’s not always easy to call out these behaviours, especially when you feel like you’re a bystander. That’s why we’ve developed this bystander action guide to help organisations reduce sexist and sexually harassing behaviour.

There are different ways to be an active bystander. Sometimes it’s reporting inappropriate behaviour, other times it’s responding to an offensive remark to show the perpetrator that their comments are not okay.

Sometimes making a light-hearted comment such as “what decade are you living in?” or  “Sorry, what was that you said about women?” is enough to stop the situation. Other times, you might want to take a more direct approach. You can read a range of responses to sexist behaviour in this guide, as well as learn how to implement active bystander initiatives in your organisation.

This is an innovative program of work that uses behavioural insights theory and approaches to encourage bystander action against sexism and sexual harassment in settings across Victoria.

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.