It could have been your wife or your sister telling this story, a friend or your daughter. Or maybe your local councillor.
“He was standing there yelling and screaming at me in a public place being really aggressive. But no-one said anything. It was humiliating”
“After she walked out of the tea room, he turned around and made a comment about her breasts. The rest of the blokes sniggered. What could I say? I wanted to fit in as one of the boys”
“He continually harassed me, so I complained to the Mayor, but it didn’t stop. I eventually resigned from council, but he’s still there today as a Councillor. I worry for the women staff”
These stories come from women I’ve met in my work as a gender equity consultant and coach, in the local government sector. Many other women (and some men) have similar stories from their workplaces. It’s either happened to them, their girlfriends or a relative. Maybe you’ve heard stories like this too?
What are the observers doing?
When I hear these stories, the #MeToo moments, I can’t help thinking why is it always up to the victim to complain? What about the bystanders to this appalling behaviour? What support and tools can assist those observers to ‘call it out’ and take action? How can organisations build a culture where bystanders take up General David Morrison’s challenge of ‘The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept’?
Local government has recently been in the spotlight following investigations of sexual harassment claims by former councillor Tessa Sullivan and councillor Cathy Oke against the Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne Council, Robert Doyle (who has since resigned). The stories told by these two brave women were shattering to hear. Cathy and Tessa are to be applauded for doing local government a service and bringing sexual harassment out of the chamber and into the spotlight. Councillor Cathy Oke has called for a change “in the way systems support women speaking out”. She noted that even though “I consider myself a very strong and an intelligent woman, why is it that those power structures within politics stop someone even like me speaking out?”
Sexism shouldn’t be ‘normal’
A recent survey by Our Watch, a national organisation aimed at preventing violence against women and children, found that:
“sexism, gender discrimination and gender inequality are widespread problems in Australia” Our Watch
This was particularly a concern in male-dominated workplaces. No wonder many women councillors experience sexism and harassment. Council chambers are dominated by men with surveys reporting that a typical councillor is an older white male in their late 50’s and 60s. Certainly, the vast majority of councillors are decent men, doing great jobs as elected representatives. But, could they be doing more to be active rather than passive bystanders? Many of the women councillors I talk to, think so.
If harassment and aggressive behaviour is a pervasive part of women’s work experiences from politics to farming, manufacturing to the military, then what can be done? It’s time for bystanders to ‘buy in’ and stop bad behaviour.
In his book Every Day Ethics, ethicist Dr Simon Longstaff notes that “harassment can occur whenever a person behaves in a manner that another person finds inappropriate and disagreeable”. He adds that every person has a ‘right to register their discomfort and ask another to refrain from specific behaviours”. From an ethical perspective, Dr Longstaff notes that when it’s time to ‘call someone out’, that ‘ideally the complainant will not have to act alone but will be backed by a network of supporters who are ready to offer assistance”. He quotes Edmund Burke
“All it needs for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”
Tools to bring in the bystanders
Rather than doing tick-the-box, compulsory sexual harassment training, research shows that workplace training on ‘Bringing in the Bystander’ is more effective in addressing inappropriate behaviour in organisations. Training can address the phenomena of The Bystander Effect in which “individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present”. A recent article for the New York Times discussed the power of programs in American university colleges and the military that empower bystanders to act and ‘call it out’. The results were demonstratively better than compulsory sexual harassment training for employees.
It’s time to give bystanders and all those ‘good men’ the tools to feel more confident to challenge attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that normalise gender-based harassment.
Here are some suggested tools can bystanders apply when they witness inappropriate behaviour:
- Comment on the behaviour of the perpetrator and call it out to him/her as you hear or see it – “That joke wasn’t funny; it’s sexist” or “I found that the way you spoke to X was aggressive/condescending/patronising/sleazy and it made me feel uncomfortable”
- Disrupt the situation, e.g. ask the victim if she wants to come get a coffee with you, or can read over your notes etc. Distract the harasser.
- Take it up with the harasser later, by asking open questions such as “Are you aware of how you came across in that conversation?” Surprisingly, sometimes they are not!
- Talk to your colleagues later to ‘de-normalise’ the situation by asking “Did anyone else notice that? Surely, I am not the only one that thinks that is sleazy?” (or aggressive or threatening etc)
- Talk to the target of the harassment and let her know you saw what happened. Offer to support her if she wants to take it further.
- Take it up with your People & Culture or HR department.
- If you’re a leader in your organisation, check your code of conduct, policies and continually update them.
So . . . back to those stories. What would you do? If your wife, sister, daughter or friend was harassed, would you feel confident to step up and take action to protect her? If no, perhaps organise some bystander training or try these suggestions. Buy in. Change it.
Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach.