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Become an active bystander

2 minutes

A bystander is a person who is present and witnesses something but is not directly involved in it.  

A bystander is also someone who is told about an incident or who witnesses sexist or sexually harassing behaviours in an organisation or setting, for example, on public transport, in a workplace, in a pub, in a sports club or on a university campus.  

Bystanders can be passive (do nothing) and they can also be active (do something). A bystander could also make things worse by reinforcing, contributing or extending the problem. An active bystander is the one who decides to take action to help other people.  

Enablers to becoming an active bystander

A bystander might be more willing and able to act if they: 

  • have support and encouragement from their peers or organisation 
  • have an awareness of what constitutes sexism and harassment  
  • have empathy for the victim 
  • have a sense of responsibility and power to intervene 
  • understand the appropriate response processes.  

Barriers to becoming an active bystander

A bystander might be unwilling or unable to act. This could be because of: 

  • failure to recognise that there is a problem 
  • adherence to traditional roles 
  • a perception that their actions would be ineffective 
  • fears of consequences of taking action 
  • worries about their image 
  • unequal power dynamics, for example if the perpetrator is their boss. 

How do I become an active bystander?

You can be an bystander by identifying, speaking out about or seeking to engage others in responding to incidents of violence or behaviours, attitudes or practices that contribute to violence.

What to do at work 

Disrespect can be talking over women, implying women are less capable than men, or sexualised comments.  

  • Show you don’t agree by not laughing along to a sexist joke. 
  • Support women by talking to your manager or HR. 
  • Speak up using your workplace’s values, for example, ‘Our office is great because we don’t do that’. 

What to do in public 

Disrespect on the street, transport and at venues can mean someone getting too close, staring and sexual comments, often claiming ‘it’s just a joke’. 

  • Show it’s not OK by moving between the disrespectful person and the woman. 
  • Support women by asking if they’re OK. 
  • Speak up by chatting to the disrespectful person to give the woman space. 

What to do online 

Disrespect online can be posts made by other people, or comments on your own posts.  

  • Show your support by retweeting/liking comments that respect women or call out disrespect. 
  • Support women by reporting disrespect to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. 
  • Speak up by commenting or messaging the disrespectful person with a meme, an article, or letting them know you’re not on board. 

Bystander action for everyone

Workplaces and bystander action