20 Dec, 2019 Last updated: 01 Jul, 2020

Does your workplace or university want to do something about changing attitudes to sexism and sexual harassment?

VicHealth teamed up with the University of Melbourne to trial new ways to arm their students with the tools they need to make a stand against sexism and sexual harassment.

Over five weeks a series of emails were sent out by the University to over 22,000 staff and students providing tips on how to be an ‘active bystander’ – to say or do something if they witness inappropriate behaviour.

The students responded with overwhelming positivity - one saying that they know they’ll be heard because the university is serious about respect and equality.


Why tools to encourage action are important

Celia Scott, Policy and Strategy Adviser at the University of Melbourne, who supports the University’s Respect Taskforce, says the trial came at the ideal time when awareness was up but people weren’t sure what to do about it.

Scott says that Australian Human Rights Commission research released in 2017 revealed 1 in 4 students were sexually harassed in a university setting in the previous year.

“So, when VicHealth asked us to develop an initiative to encourage active bystanders in 2018, we jumped

at the opportunity,” Scott said.


Using social norms in emails to motivate change

A pre-trial survey of University of Melbourne students and staff established social norms and attitudes to the issue, using the results as quotes in emails, co-designed by students and staff.

A quarter of students in the trial received education emails quoting the majority norm:

Most of us studying on campus think it’s right to take action if we witness someone receiving unwanted attention…and 78% said they would intervene if they saw sexism and sexual harassment.

A quarter of the students received education emails with the minority norm:

Most of us studying on campus think it’s right to call someone out for making sexist jokes or comments, but only 46% of us actually do.

A third quarter received simple education emails with statistics and the final quarter received no emails.

All the emails presented real examples of sexism or sexual harassment and practical suggestions on how to respond.


Excellent results

Scott said: “I was very sceptical about using emails because my experience is that students don’t open emails, but it was surprisingly successful!”

A total of 2557 people responded to the post-trial survey, which showed that 42% of people receiving the majority view emails reported acting after witnessing sexual harassment, compared to 32% receiving no emails.

Asked what advice they would give to organisations introducing bystander education into their organisation, Scott says:

“It’s vital to involve students in the co-design and spend a lot of time crafting the subject line because that’s the difference between an email opened and an email ignored.”


Encouraging your staff and/or students to call it out

VicHealth tips for organisations planning to introduce bystander initiatives:

1. Emails are an easy and cost-effective way to drive an increase in bystander action

2. E-learning offers a more intensive experience

3. Trial initiatives on a small group and evaluate before rolling out across the organisation

4. Co-design emails with a sample group of recipients and involve men in the development of initiatives on sexism.


For more information on developing bystander initiatives in your organisation, go to:

Bystander action toolkit for all organisations

Guide to implementing bystander email campaigns

Bystander action toolkit for sporting associations