The right to feel safe in your workplace is essential, however, Australians, specifically Australian women, have often been let down by employers that are meant to foster a safe environment to not tolerate harassment, discrimination or sexual assault.

A statistic from Safe Work Australia reports that one in three people have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, and only seventeen per cent of incidents are reported.

Thankfully there are plenty of options available for fellow colleagues to help someone being discriminated against. The Fair Work Commission has implemented the Fair Work Act since 2009, and offers an hour of free legal advice on reporting an incident to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to hold your employers or predatory colleagues accountable.

But preventing any form of discrimination in the office place starts within the workplace, and participating in an environment that does not tolerate such behaviour for your fellow colleagues. Examples of this can be encouraging your employer to have a clear sexual harassment or discrimination policy and ensuring others understand it. These traditionally are through high management support fostering a positive workplace environment and implementing consistent training on preventing harassment. If you notice your employer skimping on this, you can contact your the Australian Union Support Centre, which will offer free and confidential assistance.

We spoke to Steven Roberts, Professor of Education and Social Justice at Monash University on steps men can take in their workplace to make women feel safer, and how to hold others accountable for their behaviour.

Have you witnessed sexism and disrespect towards women in the workplace – when and what was that like?

I have not observed overt sexism in the workplace. However, I have observed occasions where I think sexism is implicitly at play. These include for example colleagues who are women of colour being spoken to via email in ways that are slightly condescending or chastising in ways that make me wonder ‘would a white man be on the end of such treatment?’

I felt very uneasy. In one example, I felt the need to defend the woman in question, as I felt she was being undermined or having her ability unnecessarily questioned. I did not call out the behaviour as sexist but did reply to the group email to explain that her assessment was inaccurate and re-assert that she is valued and doing a great job.

This is a question of formal institutional power, too. As a professor, I get more scope, and more imposed self-pressure, to say something. I do think it is a responsibility for me to speak out, and I don’t necessarily expect others to do so. It would be great if they could, but I understand power dynamics can significantly alter the situation.

How can men advocate for equality in the workplace if they see sexist/disrespectful behaviour?

I note here that in an ideal world, we need a strong institutional stance on this and internal policy mechanisms that can provide a proper system to sustain and perpetuate an anti-sexist culture. However, individual men have a role to play too.

Start from a foundation of being an active supporter of women. Ensure that you lift women up, include them in your teams, in meaningful ways, from the outset, respect their views whatever theory organisational level, and commit to being in teams led by women.

Then it’s about being active. It’s insufficient to be not sexist, you have to be anti-sexist.

The research is clear that if you’re in a meeting or group setting and see a behaviour that you consider sexist, you’re probably not the only one. Speak out in the confidence that at least some other men else in the room will also feel as you do. The collective challenge is to avoid minimising the harm, and to try minoritise the problematic behaviour.

This is because sexist behaviour is grounded in perceived and actual cultural and social norms about – and the perpetrators often will consider their own behaviour as culturally endorsed and part of an acceptable version of masculinity. Speaking out, and demonstrating your rejection of those norms, as a man and with other men, is part of this process of cultural change.

Some men feel it’s easier to call out the sexism one to one rather than publicly. This can work, and might be helpful in the sense that it doesn’t embarrass the perpetrator publicly – but it’s important to understand that your own view could be written off as an anomaly. Collective action is better. Find other men who share your view, and address the perpetrator in conversation together. Consider that there are both in the moment and after the moment opportunities for intervention, and the latter includes formal reporting.

There are more subtle ways to intervene, which might include for example how to respond to seeing your colleagues excluded. The obvious example is to simply ‘call in’ those who are being excluded – get the view yourself, or propose to the excluder that it’s important that we get the view of the woman colleague who might be being left out.

I also think it’s important to consider how we respond to hearing about – not even witnessing – sexism. Men often have different perceptions about just how sexist any given behaviour is, and this can and usually does work to delegitimise women’s status as ‘knower’ of their experiences of being oppressed. So start by taking what you hear as serious, and avoid the temptation to play it down or defend the perpetrator. Validate women’s experiences and learn to understand what was wrong with the behaviour that your work colleagues have had to face.

Be an ally to your women colleagues and a role model for your men colleagues.

3. Are there any environments where you think sexism and disrespect towards women is more prevalent? Is there a way men can influence a change within these environments?

There is a tendency to imagine that sexism is bound up with workplaces of lower educated or working class men. Building sites are the common idea. But this is misleading. High concentrations of men might be a big predictor, but it’s a mistake to think of sexism as a problem of working class men. Actually, the evidence is overwhelming: sexual assault and harassment and other forms of sexism are prevalent across occupations and industries up and down the socioeconomic spectrum.

Boardrooms, university students and staff, private school boys, politicians at the local and national level, movie stars and producers. Sexism is a matter for men in all these spaces too, and we constantly see news stories reflecting this. And yet the public imagination is, as I note, geared towards imagining its working class or ethnic minority boys and men who are the problem.

4. What advice would you give someone whose workmate is using sexist language or slurs to talk about women, talk down to women or make jokes about women?

As above, be active. However, it’s important not to challenge on the basis that ‘if a woman was here she wouldn’t like it’. The point is that it is offensive, de facto. Explain that it’s not funny. That it sustains rape culture and is part of the spectrum of behaviour that sustains gender inequality.

If you’d like to learn more about the steps you can take to help foster a safer workplace environment for your colleagues and how to report any incidents you see, click here.