5: What can be done to prevent sexism?

What can be done to prevent sexism and gendered violence? We ask three experts “What one thing would you like teenagers to learn that could help to prevent sexism and gendered violence?” Listen to this episode to hear responses from Katherine Bogen (Katherine worked in paediatric and adolescent violence prevention for 5 years as a program coordinator and intervention facilitator before pursuing her PhD, and is now affiliated with the violence prevention research team at the University of Nebraska), Angie Wan and Dr Joyce Yu (Cofounders of Australia’s Consent Labs), and Dr Christine Gidycz (licensed clinical psychologist who has been conducting research on gender-based violence for over 35 years including setting up the Ohio University Sexual Assault Risk Reduction program, co-editing a book “Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Resistance:  Theory, Research, and Practice”, and publishing over 100 peer-reviewed articles).

Trigger warning: This episode mentions sexual assault but does not go into detail about it. If this triggers difficult feelings or memories for you, it can help to reach out to an understanding friend, or a helpline such as 1800respect (1800 737 732), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), or Lifeline (13 11 14) in Australia, or other national helplines.

What can be done to prevent sexism? Image of girls, boys, men, and women with a rainbow love heart pattern representing acceptance, respect, and love that transcends genders.Links and further information


Dr Nicole Weeks: Welcome! This is a bit of a different episode. I asked experts to answer a question about sexism and gendered violence. Trigger warning, I will mention sexual assault, but won't go into details. If you need support, you can call lifeline on 13 11 14, or 1800respect, that's 1800 737 732. This is very topical in Australia now. In March 2021 we saw media criticising boys schools for what has been called an oppressive rape culture. The media storm was triggered by a petition including 5000 sexual assault stories. We've also seen rape and sexual assault accusations made against multiple parliamentarians as mentioned in Q&A. As if that weren't enough, the Defence Chief gave a speech to new cadets warning them not to fall victim to the “4 A's: alcohol, out after midnight, alone, and attractive”. Which suggests that attractive people need to limit their freedoms and if they don't heed the warning are to blame for abuse. Which is very wrong. Not to mention the fact that the majority of sexual assaults actually happen in private homes, not out on the street anyway. This series of events, and the sexism exposed in the political and public commentary around them, has sparked protests that the opposition leader has attended, but the government has been conspicuously absent at. None of this is OK. So what needs to change? Here are the first three responses I received to the question: “What one thing would you like teenagers to learn that could help to prevent sexism and gendered violence?”

I'll let our first guest introduce herself.

Katherine Bogen's response to “What one thing would you like teenagers to learn that could help to prevent sexism and gendered violence?”

Katherine Bogen: Hello my name is Katherine Bogen, I'm a clinical psychology PhD student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln but before I began my graduate training I spent about five years working in paediatric violence prevention. So I ran a school based intervention programme with middle and high school students that was designed to mitigate risk for sexual and gender based violence. Gender-based violence is a significant problem for children and adolescents about one in four girls and one in six boys experience some form of sexual abuse before they turn 18 and trans and gender nonconforming youth are at even greater risk for experiencing victimisation. About half of all rape victims are adolescents and sexual victimisation is associated with myriad negative health outcomes.

Social norms interventions or interventions that focus on communicating healthy community norms and correcting harmful misperceptions provide a promising new direction for violence prevention and harm reduction that can be implemented across levels of the social ecology. From interpersonal interactions all the way up to systemic and policy levels. The social norms approach is driven by the recognition that folks often incorrectly perceive the attitudes or behaviours of other folks in their environment. So they believe those attitudes and behaviours to be different from their own when in fact they are not. Carriers of social norms misperceptions can include peers, friends, colleagues, and community members.

Misperceptions of normative social behaviours often occur in relation to problem behaviours which are usually over estimated (of course). As well as in relation to healthy or pro social behaviours which (just our luck) tends to be under estimated. For example, if you survey a group of teenage boys and ask them each individually on a confidential survey “Do you think it's wrong to boss another person around in a relationship?”, the vast majority of them let's say 95% will answer “yes I believe that that is wrong” so you will have just collected data that told you that 95% of boys in this community think that it's wrong to boss around a dating partner but if you instead ask them what percent of your classmates think it's wrong to boss another person around in a dating relationship, you'll see survey responses like 30%, 40%.

So you could have a 50% gap between what is actually being reported in a community to what members of that community perceive. This might be because these students don't see their classmates intervening to interrupt dating violence. So what we're getting at then is an extrapolation of values from observations of very limited behaviours. Students might think I'm not seeing anybody interrupt this right now in this context by immediately confronting the situation, so they must not care, they must not feel the way about this that I do, they must not be uncomfortable.

So let's break this down based on underlying theory and talk about why it's inaccurate. The phenomenon of common misperceptions has two components. The first is what we call pluralistic ignorance and this occurs when the majority incorrectly believes itself to be the minority. So most people who think that bossing around a dating partner is wrong might not believe that the majority of their peers share their values. Misperceptions can cause individuals to alter their own behaviours to conform to what they think is the norm such that negative behaviours, like passivity when witnessing dating violence, are amplified and healthy behaviours ,like intervening to stop dating violence, are inhibited. Pluralistic ignorance is then bolstered by what we call the false consensus effect which is a second component of misperceptions and that's the false belief that others share similar beliefs values or behaviours when actually they don't. So the false consensus effect might lead a minority, those holding unhealthy attitudes and beliefs, to perceive themselves as the majority. So to translate this might occur when a high profile couple at school has a fight and that fight becomes violent say that a boy pushes his girlfriend in the hall and because nobody intervenes to stop him or tells him that what he just did isn't cool, the rest of the students in that school think that others were OK with what happened.

So the social norms approach hypothesises then that interventions designed to correct misperceptions by sharing actual healthy student norms will have a beneficial effect on that group or community members. That is telling students that their peers find dating violence unacceptable and we know that because we did a confidential survey of your peers and they told us so, is good for the community. Furthermore the social norms approach posits that knowledge of the actual norm so having a corrected misperception will reduce participation in problematic behaviours and encourage participation in pro social or helping behaviours. That is people who would otherwise perpetrate dating violence see those data all around their school or all around their community, anticipate social sanctions or rejection if they participate in the harmful behaviour, and then decide not to perpetrate. Data correcting misperceived norms can be particularly impactful when it's tailored towards an individual a group or a community, so it's really targeted to the people who most need to hear it.

This strategy is useful at various levels of the social ecology and can be used to target a variety of behaviours. It could even enable children and adolescents to learn the skills of thinking critically about other misperceptions they might hold. So we could use social norms interventions to empower young women in STEM by collecting data on what their peers think about young women in stem and then saying “you know 95% of your classmates said that they find women who studies science to be really impressive, this field can be fem, let's do it!” We could also use social norms interventions to challenge the boy box, or the construction of behaviours that are considered acceptable for boys and men, by collecting data on for example emotional experiences from groups of boys and sharing that data with them. So saying “hey 96% of the boys in your grade reported that they've cried in the last year and 98% of the boys in your grade say they wish it was socially acceptable for boys to cry in public you all have this in common maybe you'll feel safer and more supportive now to experience the full range of human emotions rather than the teeny sliver we allow boys and men”. Because you know these data we could address gender based violence against trans and gender nonconforming use by collecting data on what percent of their peers think that it's wrong to pick on someone because of their gender identity. And this theory and this application could extend to numerous forms of violent behaviour. We could address racist bullying at the school level by collecting and sharing data on what percent of students think that racial justice is important, or what percent of students believe that their peers should be able to feel safe and comfortable at school regardless of their race, and then we can publicise those messages.

Social norms interventions take the data that they collect and report it to the communities to which it applies. This can be in the form of poster campaigns, classroom exercises that use student data, morning announcements, skits, using positive norms data in homework assignments, or inviting students to reflect on the cognitive dissonance they experience when presented with the actual norm. So asking them “you know, when you see this 96%, how does that make you feel? Do you believe it? Why don't you believe it?” Is it possible that there are these different barriers to believing these data that now we can have a conversation about. The example I'm sharing now is just at the school level. Imagine what we could achieve if we implemented social norms interventions across developmental trajectories and in different social contexts. Imagine if we ingrained this practice of thinking critically about our perceptions and asking ourselves whether we might be misperceiving something important. The possibilities for the utility of this approach are endless it's one of the reasons I am so passionate about it.

So what do you need in order to use the social norms approach?

  1. First you need data about a population that ask them about their own beliefs and behaviours and separately what they perceived to be the beliefs and behaviours of members of their community.
  2. A way to publicise misperceptions by highlighting the healthy norm is also really important. So for example media campaign campaigns that share that 95% of students at ABC middle school think that it's wrong to boss around a dating partner.
  3. And finally you need a way to measure whether behaviour changes in the weeks months or years after that data has proliferated throughout the community. So once people know that 95% of students at XYZ middle school think that bossing around a dating partner is wrong, does perpetration of dating violence decrease in the school?

And one of the great benefits of the social norms approach is that it can be scaled up or down depending on your target you can use this with your kids with your spouse with your friends and you can do so in a way that honours the truth of a specific community’s norms and behaviours and really focuses on positive psychology.

Dr Nicole Weeks: What a fantastic response from Katherine Bogen! This corresponds to data from the Australian National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) which found that almost three quarters of 16-24 year olds in Australia are bothered by sexist jokes, but only 37 percent feel confident enough to say anything, and only 58% think all or most of their friends would back them up if they did say something. I use this survey in our self-defence classes and find similar stats. I wonder whether this approach could be helpful in boys schools?

This next response is from Angie Wan and Dr Joyce Yu, co-founders of Consent Labs, an organisation helping to change the culture around sexual consent…

Angie Wan and Dr Joyce Yu's response to “What one thing would you like teenagers to learn that could help to prevent sexism and gendered violence?”

Dr Joyce Yu: Angie what one thing would you like teenagers to learn that could help prevent sexism and gender violence?

Angie Wan: Very much in theme with Consent Labs I obviously believe that consent education is super important I think it should be absolute bedrock, the foundation that all genders learn at school because it helps to foster healthy communication that is so important in respectful relationships.

Dr Joyce Yu: I think that sexism and gender violence is really a response to not laying the right foundations and so really at Concent Labs we focus on teaching how to have respectful conversations when it comes to boundary setting and recognising when someone may be trying to persuade or coerce you into something. We really focus on the idea of everyday consent in that these are skills that we've actually learned from a young age we know them as manners but when it comes to translating it into a sexual context often these core principles are forgotten about or seen as not relevant.

Angie Wan: Yeah and I think just making these conversations be the norm when you're exploring any sort of relationship is really important because you often don't see that reflected in whether it's social media or media more broadly such as like TV shows and movies. We've seen some really positive things come out recently, like normal people, but I think aside from that it's just consent and communication isn't portrayed.

Dr Joyce Yu: So I think that once those foundational skills are actually emphasised it sets young kids up to then apply those skills when it comes to exploring their sexuality and their gender and respectful relationships and then we can move into sort of more of a consent within a sexual experience, focusing on how to actually ask for consent, how to respect and recognise when someone saying no to you, and then importantly as well how to recognise sexual harassment and assault and then what your options and rights are in terms of responding. So it really does need to be introduced to their curriculums or to their whole high school experience from a young age and then this is a skill that definitely needs to be practised overtime.

Dr Nicole Weeks: Understanding consent is so important! A little known fact is that individuals who are evidently intoxicated cannot give consent. I don't think the Defence Chief intended to blame victims – he just repeated the cultural messages around sexual assault that need to be challenged. A better message would have been “As you should all know, when people are intoxicated they cannot give consent to sexual contact. If I hear of anyone intimately touching a cadet who is obviously intoxicated, that is sexual assault and it will not be tolerated! And everyone, if you want to have sex. Limit your drinks!”

Our third and final response for this episode is from Dr Christine Gidycz, Professor Emerita at Ohio University. Dr Gidycz is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been researching gender-based violence for 35 years. She has impressive credentials, which I will detail in the show notes. Here is Dr Gidycz ‘s response:

Dr Christine Gidycz's response to “What one thing would you like teenagers to learn that could help to prevent sexism and gendered violence?”

Dr Christine Gidycz: I was asked to suggest one thing to teenagers to help to prevent sexism and gender-based violence. I will give you my short answer and then provide you with reasons for my suggestion.

So to begin, overall, and in short, teenagers of all genders need to look out for and respond to the various forms that sexism and violence can take. While violent and sexist behaviours, at times, can seem very obvious, I'm suggesting that young people need to be aware that sexism and violent behaviours can be less obvious, and as such, might be easily missed. For example, comments or what at the surface could just be laughed off as a joke. Especially when you really like someone or are in a relationship with that person, it can be easy to ignore or excuse sexist or violent behaviours, especially when they're less obvious or they occur in passing, and you really do like that person. Even though certain forms of sexism and violence can on the surface seem less hurtful or obvious, they can still have a harmful impact, and thus, young people need to speak up and not tolerate any form of sexism or violence – Regardless of whether you are experiencing it yourself or witnessing someone else like a friend or someone you care about also experiencing it.

So let me explain further and let's start with sexism. We normally think of it as behaviours or comments that are really quite negative and put women and feminine characteristics down or imply that women are the inferior sex or feminine behaviours are bad. At the same time, sexist attitudes or behaviours imply that men are stronger or more able and masculine behaviours are better. So comments such as, “women are not as competent as men” is obviously sexist. Now what's happened though, in more recent years, researchers have also looked at a less obvious form of sexism, which includes attitudes that on the surface don't put women down, but rather they reflect men's desire to take care of women and to protect them. While such attitudes and comments such as, “women need to be protected and cherished by men” may seem OK at a first glance, such comments and attitudes still reflect the notion that women and girls are inferior… that they are less able or not as capable as men… hence they need boys or men to take care of them. Such attitudes are problematic because they give the control to men or boys, allow men to dominate and take charge, and reinforce conventional roles where women and girls have less power.

So let's turn to gender-based violence. Like sexism it can also take various forms. It can include physical assaults (such as slapping, pushing, shoving), psychological or emotional abuse, (saying mean things, putting you down) sexual abuse (such as touching or kissing you when you don't want it, or forcing you to have sex). It can also include having someone pursue you by showing up at your house repeatedly, texting you or following you on social media, for example, when you don't want them to, or monitoring your whereabouts. Sometimes this happens after a breakup also. Some of these behaviours, such as saying mean things about you, occur in cyberspace. Now just like sexism, some forms of gender-based violence behaviour may look less severe than others. For example, touching or kissing you when you don't want it may seem less severe than forcing you to have sex. Putting you down may seem less of a problem than hitting you. Keep in mind though that any form of violence is a cause for concern.

What I'm suggesting to you is that if we want to begin to stop sexism and gender-based violence in our society, that you do not tolerate any sexist or violent behaviour in any way shape or form, regardless of how minor you may perceive it to be. Why is this important? It's important because we know from research that, especially when you are dating or in a relationship with someone, violent and sexist behaviours often occur more than once. Sometimes it also gets worse over time. Thus, the comment that might seem relatively small, might turn into more cruel or hurtful comments over time. Since we know that some people who engage in violent acts, engage in more severe behaviours over time, it is also important to not tolerate any form of violent behaviour, and to be on the watch for it in order to protect yourself or your friends. Now we also know from research that people who engage in sexist behaviour, even the less obvious form of sexist behaviour, are more likely to engage in violent behaviour. Now even though not all people who engage in sexist behaviour are violent, it can at times be a warning signal that an individual may become violent over time.

So to wrap things up, by speaking out against and not tolerating more subtle or less obvious or severe forms of violence, we all begin to change the culture that all too often sees such behaviours as OK or normal. Now keep in mind that speaking up against such behaviours, can be done differently, and in different ways. Sometimes you may feel safe to speak directly to the person engaging in such behaviours. At other times it might be more appropriate and safer to tell a teacher, parent, or someone else you trust to help you. If we allow such behaviours to be seen as normal, it allows such behaviours to continue and over time, to possibly get worse. Thus, I believe that the time has come for all of us to take responsibility to try to change a culture which for all too long has allowed sexism and violence to continue.

Dr Nicole Weeks: This zero-tolerance approach to sexism should be evident especially in high-profile bodies like politics. Something we discuss in our self-defence modules is questioning the use of any terms that are applied to only a single sex, because they are usually used to maintain gender stereotypes. For example ‘bitch’ and ‘cow’ dehumanise women, whereas ‘pussy’ is used to shame men for showing emotion, and may also be implying that women are cowardly by virtue of their body parts. I wish political speech were more routinely questioned for use of gender-biased terms and that they made an effort to show that accusations of sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by parliamentarians are taken seriously.

I’d like to send out a big thank you to Katherine Bogen, Angie Wan and Joyce Yu from Consent Labs, and Christine Gidycz for their valuable contributions to this discussion. To find out more about Consent Labs, or to read papers and books published by Christine, Katherine, and their colleagues please see above. If you have a question you would like answered in future episodes, please leave a comment below.

Till next time!

Nicky Weeks

Nicole Weeks is a PhD and Masters-qualified Psychologist. She has developed Communicating with Strength, Party-ready, Date-ready, and Travel-ready workshops to complement Personal Strength’s popular Women’s Self Defence Workshops and short courses. Her vision is that teenage girls and women who attend the workshops will leave more confident and empowered to stand up for themselves and what matters to them everyday in friendship groups, with family, in school, work, and play. With more confidence that they can recognise and react to danger, women can feel more free and less afraid everyday.
5: What can be done to prevent sexism?

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