What can bystanders do to counter sexism in the workplace?


In the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, broader issues are being raised about how we can stop such abuse of power occurring. Dr Amy Erickson, a University Lecturer in British Economic and Social History, and Emma Nicholls, a PhD student in the Faculty of History, are leading a workshop on bystander intervention in cases of sexism and racism at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas. They speak here about what it involves and how everyone can make a difference.

What is bystander training?

Amy Erickson and Emma Nicholls: ‘Bystander intervention training’ equips people with the confidence and skills to intervene when they see a potentially harmful or discriminatory situation unfolding. It’s a term most frequently encountered as a technique to intercept sexual violence, but there are much wider applications for these strategies.

A ‘climate’ of discrimination may be built from countless small incidents: a racist or sexist joke that passes unchallenged, for example, or a series of meetings or public forums where the voices of men seem to dominate. These are often not the types of situation where it is plausible to invoke an official complaints procedure and there may be a feeling that nothing more can be done. Bystander training gives people additional options – to support those who are targeted and to question or challenge the behaviour. These steps can help change the accepted cultural norms of workplaces and communities – even of a conversation. To understand how small steps contribute, watch the brilliant short video ‘Give Nothing to Racism’ at https://givenothing.co.nz.

Have you had feedback from people who have taken part in your workshops?

AE and SN: One of the most important pieces of feedback we had from participants is relief that others had witnessed similar kinds of behaviour and also saw it as a problem. When overt sexism, racism or other forms of discrimination take place, people are more likely to recognise it as unacceptable and a clear course of action (making an official complaint, for example) often presents itself. More subtle or complex forms of discrimination can be just as harmful, but sometimes seem more difficult to tackle, and in a worst case scenario, can leave people thinking ‘this institution just isn’t a place for people like me’. The workshop helped participants to collectively brainstorm effective, concrete strategies for responding to incidents and changing the climate of communities within academia and beyond.

How does this link with your research?

AE and SN: On the surface, it might seem as though bystander intervention training is quite disconnected from our research: Amy Erickson’s research focuses on gender, work and legal structures in early modern England while Emma Nicholls’ PhD looks at how record-keeping helped shape the identities of nuns in fifteenth and sixteenth-century Tuscany. But we are both familiar with academic environments which undervalue particular kinds of history. Improving the diversity and equality of our academic communities expands the topics we think are worthy of historical study. People with different life experiences ask different kinds of questions of the past and widen our perspectives. For both excluded individuals and intellectual communities as a whole, therefore, strengthening the diversity of voices within academia can have a profound influence on the direction that research takes.

How important is it for bystanders to call out sexism and racism?

AE and SN: For those of us who have the privilege of a voice within academia or the wider community, calling out racism and sexism when we see it is a fundamental obligation. If discrimination is not called out and addressed, then it becomes an accepted part of the culture.

What is the impact if bystanders do not speak out?

AE and SN: People who are exposed to a constant trickle of small, discriminatory acts can end up feeling excluded or voiceless within our communities. If bystanders do not speak out, discrimination is perpetuated. Climates of discrimination pave the way for further, more serious acts of harassment, exclusion or even violence.

Do you have any future plans for the workshop?

AE and SN: There has been a strong response to the workshops we have offered so far and we plan to hold two more bystander training events at Cambridge in the coming months. Our ultimate aim is to pass on the know-how we have gained so that others can implement bystander intervention strategies within their own communities. The Festival of Ideas ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ workshop is very much a part of this, and we warmly welcome everyone – whether they are a part of academia or not – to come along and find out more.

*Speaking Truth to Power on 17th October will brainstorm ideas for bystander training to empower personal responses in a collective effort to counter discrimination.



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