Why we need to shift from bystander to upstander

by Nov 14, 2018

We need to move from bystander to upstander more quickly than we are

Listening to Pesto & Gnocchi Guy I failed miserably to shift from bystander to upstander 

I’ve recently spent more time than usual on trains. A few weeks ago I was on a packed train to London for the People’s Vote March. People of all ages were crammed like sardines into carriages. It wasn’t even hanging room only. Sitting up the carriage from me was up was a group of well-dressed, well-spoken young men. One talked quite loudly about making his own gnocchi and pesto. Seriously, I was suitably impressed. But no sooner than the words were out of his mouth, Pesto & Gnocchi Guy went on to describe his boss in the following way: “She’s a f***ing c**t with a gigantic fat a**e and massive t**s.”


I considered a number of things. The first was that no one challenged him, even those with small kids.  They didn’t look a physically intimidating group. Maybe it was a Brit thing afraid to make a scene? The second was to consider my limited options.This was this man’s truth. My intention was not to change his mind but to share my experience of it and suggest he reduce the volume of his voice by several decibels. On a practical level I could elbow my way through the crowds and raise the issue with the guy. Alternatively I could shout something and he might hear. I finally decided I would try to talk to him when we got off the train. Unfortunately the person got off a stop early and his mates disappeared out of view in the huge crowd. I had missed my opportunity to make the vital shift from bystander to upstander. And so did everyone else, even those better positioned than me. Pesto & Gnocchi Guy probably has no idea he was being offensive.

In so doing we let something go which should have been challenged. Was it normal to them rather than being unacceptable?

bystander to upstander

Women trained to live defensively

Women have a different experience to life to men. For this reason they arrive in the workplace with different thinking. It’s quite often, although not always, defensive. Research from US-based gender violence expert, Jackson Katz, tells us that men generally never take sexual harassment into consideration for their personal safety, except in one set of circumstances.

“Don’t go to prison.”

Research from 3Plus shows that women, on the other hand, have to factor this into every situation in their lives; from their appearance, to socially, to public transport and even the workplace, which should be a safe place. Frequently it isn’t, as we have found out with the #MeToo movement.

If your workplace doesn’t seem to encourage women, maybe there are ways you could improve it? Try 3Plus’ FREE ebook for 12 key steps to attract, recruit and retain female talent.

On top of this there are many people, including some women, who don’t see certain circumstances as potentially offensive, with research showing clear generational divides. Lewd comments such as the one I heard that day could fall into that category. It might have been described by some as “off-colour,” or “blue,” or the phrase I hate more than anything “boys will be boys” – followed by an indulgent smile. But this is just the start of the spectrum of misogyny, as you can see below. Will Pesto & Gnocchi Guy move further up the spectrum? Who knows. What he should understand is that it’s not OK, especially as I was sitting next to a teenage girl. This is becoming her normal. She also may not realize that he was being offensive. She may even one day have to work for a man like him .

Spectrum of Misogyny


Why does this matter?

Women are taught from a very early age to live their lives defensively. Strategies such as be ladylike, don’t dress provocatively, always have cab money, never leave your drink unattended, walk home with friends, don’t talk to men in cars (even if they look like Richard Gere), and so on. A recent plea from the BBC urged female joggers not to wear head phones while running, to avoid sexual assault. They didn’t urge men not to sexually assault women.

It’s hardly surprising that they come to the workplace form a different place. Business leaders need to understand that and factor that in. They also need to monitor their corporate cultures.

Chances are these organisations have many nice men who make their own pesto and gnocchi, but who still unintentionally contribute to a bro culture. Those same leaders, including Pesto & Gnocchi Guy when he gets there, will wonder why women leave. This will never change unless we all make the shift from bystander to upstander. We need to start to develop an awareness of the roots and impact of sexist behaviour. We have to call it out.


Bro culture can have a toxic effect in the workplace. Make sure your business is striving for inclusivity instead, with our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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