Text size: A A A

‘Intervening is important’: responding to sexist behaviour at work

Bystanders play a significant role in addressing sexism in the workplace, research shows. But publicly challenging the perpetrator is not the only option.

Many of us have witnessed sexism or sexual harassment in the workplace, but don’t always know how to respond.

Around one in 10 public servants in Victoria’s People Matter survey said they had suffered sexual harassment at work in the previous year — a number that jumps to 16% for women under 35.

But what should you do if you see it happening to someone else? Is intervening a good idea? And is standing up to someone in the moment the only way to take action?

“We’re now starting to get some good evidence that intervening is important,” says Dr Veronica Quinn of the Behavioural Insights Team’s Sydney office.

“There’s been a bit of a backlash on the internet around the bystander, saying it’s nothing to do with you, stay out of it, you’re only going to make things worse by getting involved,” she told a recent event titled ‘Calling it out: creating a Victorian culture that stands up to sexism’, hosted by VicHealth and IPAA Victoria.

“What we’re really clearly seeing from the literature is that this isn’t true. So intervening is a positive thing. It can protect the victim, it can discourage the perpetrator from doing it again.

“But mostly importantly, it communicates the behaviour is just not okay. … When we don’t do something, we are reinforcing that that’s acceptable. When we intervene, we’re sending a really clear message that it’s not.”

Bystanders play an important role because often the target of harassment isn’t in a position to do something themselves. They’re also more likely to be viewed as impartial, “and that can be really powerful”, Quinn argues.

However, while standing up in the moment and calling out inappropriate behaviour can send a really strong message, it is not the only intervention.

“There’s a range of behaviours we can use in different situations. … It’s not all or nothing,” she says.

“It can happen afterwards, it can involve reporting up, it can involve chatting to the victim, it can involve chatting to the person who did it, trying to see if they are even aware of what they were doing and how it might have been gendered.”

Taking action can be difficult. In behavioural studies, there’s something called the intention-behaviour gap.

“What we know is that unfortunately, despite people saying they would intervene if they did witness sexism and sexual harassment, they often don’t,” she explained.

“We can have best intentions that don’t always translate. … we do get this paralysing fear and anxiety and you kind of just don’t do anything.”

We find ways to rationalise not intervening, or just don’t do anything. Interestingly, despite young people often being the most progressive, the research shows they are also least likely to intervene.

But being aware of these patterns in our behaviour and thinking through the possibilities for intervention beforehand can help build confidence and hopefully lead to more people taking action. Or, in the words of one audience member: “I don’t always have to mind my own business!”

It’s more than just a joke

Men often struggle to see why behaviour they see as innocuous can be perceived very differently, explained VicHealth’s Natalie Russell. But there are ways to demonstrate why these things are important.

“The question that’s often put to men or women in a workshop scenario is ‘think back to the times when you’ve felt unsafe in your community, whether it’s walking home at night or walking along the street when there are a group of men’,” she said.

“You often get blanks stares from the men in the room, but the women in the room are nodding and can think of many times that they’ve felt unsafe. … It’s not something that I think men are exposed to in their everyday life, putting themselves in a woman’s shoes in that way.”

It’s important not to accept anything less than gender equality as the norm, said VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter, though often “we have to be humble on that journey” and acknowledge that different people are at different places with their understanding of what that means.

“When we talk about bystander action at the primary prevention end of the spectrum we’re not focusing on getting physically involved in a physical situation. Rather, bystander action in this context includes a much broader range of responsibilities and actions,” she says.

“For example, confronting a friend or a colleague who continually makes sexist jokes. Talking to your manager if women are being treated unfairly in the workplace. Challenging spectators or players who use sexist sledging on or off the sports field, or in my case when I go to the gym … It’s challenging in those places where people are living their lives and challenging that behaviour at that moment.”

Last week’s event is the latest piece of work by VicHealth on bystanders stretching back 10 years. She hopes that the research compiled by the project will “empower Victorians to take a stand and say enough is enough”.

“We knew it was the passive acceptance of these behaviours that ultimately led to the intolerable high rates of violence against women,” says Rechter.

“We know that too many Victorians were not necessarily recognising the serious impact that these acts of everyday sexism have. It was the passive acceptance, the trivialising of such acts that left unchallenged contribute to a violence-supportive culture.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.