Gender-based violence at universities is a big problem. Last year, 119 universities were named on Everyone’s Invited, a website that catalogues instances of sexual harassment and violence in educational settings.
Higher Education Institutions are working hard to tackle the issue: the majority of universities now have a specific anti-sexual violence policy, and many of them also have dedicated harassment support services and healthy relationship advocates.
Fighting gender-based violence is a priority for everyone in the Higher Education ecosystem. Student Unions work closely with universities by providing students with items like drinks covers and personal alarms, and encouraging nightlife venues to put in place safety initiatives like ‘Ask for Angela’.
But progress can be slow, and student activist groups still feel that their universities aren’t doing enough to combat gender-based violence head-on. So what can Higher Education Institutions do to make sure that their hard work makes the biggest impact possible?
Gender-based violence is a broad term covering a range of negative behaviours that are directed towards people because of their gender. This can relate to a person’s gender identity – such as being a woman or non-binary – or to their physical characteristics.
Some acts of gender-based violence, like serious sexual assault, are crimes that can come with heavy consequences for perpetrators. But the instances of gender-based violence that we are most likely to witness in our day-to-day lives, like verbal harassment or inappropriate touching, often stand in a legal grey area. This means that damaging behaviour regularly goes unchallenged, in universities and other spaces.
People are more likely to experience serious gender-based violence at university than at any other time in their lives. In fact, figures from the Office for National Statistics show that full-time students are more than three times as likely to experience sexual assault than people in any other occupation.
The reasons for this are complicated and can be difficult for universities to grapple with, but the available evidence suggests that gender-based violence often has the same causes across institutions.
Studies show that a person’s attitude towards women is a strong indicator of their likelihood to perpetrate gender-based violence. In cultures where sexism is normalised, violence against women is more common, even if sexism in that space is casual or implicit.
The majority of female students interviewed by the NUS report that sexism and ‘lad culture’ has a noticeable – and detrimental – impact on their university experiences, in academic as well as social settings.
Some female students reported verbal and physical harassment from male students on nights out. They also noted that sexist behaviour became more extreme and upsetting when it came from groups of male friends, such as sports teams.
Universities have been trying to tackle campus sexism and gender-based violence by addressing male students directly. Some universities have worked with a non-profit organisation called Beyond Equality to deliver ‘good lad’ workshops directly to all-male sports teams.
Beyond Equality provides ‘positive masculinity’ workshops that encourage male students to play an active role in changing sexist cultures. Feedback from Good Lad workshops indicates that participants developed a better understanding of why sexist behaviour is wrong after completing the programme and rated themselves as more likely to stand up for women in future.
But as the information and norms young people are exposed to change, so does the kind of sexism female students encounter. This is why violence prevention techniques need to address everyone, regardless of their interests and outward behaviour.
Behavioural psychologists believe that the most impactful way to prevent gender-based violence is to educate people about what they can do when they witness it. Empowering people to act on behaviour that they know is wrong, means that cultures can be changed from the inside out, with lasting effects.
People who intervene to help others in difficult situations are often referred to as active bystanders. In the context of gender-based violence, an active bystander might intervene by telling a friend that his sexist joke isn’t funny, or by asking a female friend who has just been catcalled if she is okay.
We know that gender-based violence can happen in any place, and at any time. This is why the role of the active bystander is so important.
Some studies have found that a person’s willingness to intervene in a situation is more closely related to their understanding of what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour, than it is to the strength of their own attitudes towards gender-based violence.
This means that people who see active bystanders intervene are more likely to act in difficult situations in the future. Active bystanders don’t just help the people around them when they see gender-based violence happen – they prevent it from happening in their communities and social circles later on, making life easier for people they will never even meet.
With the right active bystander training programmes, universities can harness the power of social influence to reduce the prevalence of gender-based violence on campus.
Since 2013, US universities have been mandated to include bystander intervention training components in their anti-sexual violence initiatives. A 2014 review commissioned by the White House found that bystander intervention training was among the most promising of prevention strategies for universities to employ, based on outcomes within that year.
The review found that after completing different kinds of bystander intervention training, students felt significantly more confident in their ability to intervene in difficult situations. Students also rated themselves as more likely to intervene if they were to witness gender-based violence, and reported having more empathy for the women who experience it first-hand.
On top of this, male students were shown to be made less likely to perpetrate gender-based violence themselves as a result of completing active bystander training. By helping men to see themselves as potential helpers rather than as potential offenders, active bystander training can turn difficult and uncomfortable conversations about consent into a positive outcome.
Universities in the UK are starting to catch up with the US. The Intervention Initiative, a gender-based violence prevention toolkit funded by Public Health England, has active bystander training at its core. A study of its impact on first-year law students found that participants became significantly more confident in their intervention abilities and significantly less likely to deny that the problem of gender-based violence exists in university settings.
What’s more, the students involved in the pilot enjoyed learning about how to become active bystanders, giving the course exceptionally good ratings across the board in their post-session feedback.
However, the Intervention Initiative is expensive and lengthy for universities to run. Delivered through eight hour-long classroom sessions, the Intervention Initiative requires consistent long-term engagement from students to be effective, as well as the appropriate staff to present it.
The group session model of active bystander training also poses the issue that some participants will have personal experience of gender-based violence. This can put them in difficult situations when they are upset by the course content or by other students’ comments.
Queen’s University Belfast has piloted GoodCourse’s platform to enrol students in active bystander training, providing students with the information they need without demanding hours of their time or putting them in situations that could be upsetting.
Hyper accessible and engaging training was delivered direct to students’ phones, allowing them to learn active bystander intervention techniques in a way that fits into their schedules and keeps their privacy intact.
Active bystander interventions start chain reactions within social groups – these simple techniques have the power to change campus culture from the inside out.
The process of becoming an active bystander can seem intimidating at first. For most people, stepping in to help someone at risk feels doable in theory, but impossible in practice.
Often we want to act when we see or hear something that we know is wrong, but we might feel like it’s none of our business, or that we aren’t the right person to get involved. We might even be scared of getting hurt ourselves or of being laughed at by other people in the room.
This fear is natural. But as our pilot at Queen’s University Belfast shows, students are keen to learn how to become active bystanders and prevent other people from being harmed.
Once we’re armed with the right knowledge, we can all start to reduce gender-based violence in our communities.