Building respectful and inclusive workplaces: Men’s positive roles in violence prevention

Domestic and sexual violence are on the public agenda. 

We know a fair amount now about men’s violence against women. We know that large numbers of women experience violence. In fact, probably virtually every woman you know has experienced some kind of violence or abuse at some point in her life. She was touched or groped when she didn’t want it. She had a partner who called her degrading names or controlled her contact with her friends. She was pressured into sex. She has been followed or stalked. She received threatening messages and abuse online. 

We know too that this violence has social causes. Domestic violence and sexual violence are not the product of biology or testosterone. They are not inevitable or universal. Instead, they are based in society. They have social causes. 

  • Traditional gender norms, gender roles, and gender inequalities;
  • Community tolerance for violence and abuse;
  • Patterns of social injustice and disadvantage.

Most men do not use violence against women. Most men don’t abuse or assault women. But some men do. 

And we know that some men are more likely than other men to abuse or assault women. 

  • Men who believe that men should be the dominant ones in relationships and families. Men who believe that women own them sex, that they have a right of access to women’s bodies. 
  • Men who have grown up with rigid and stereotypical gender roles.
  • Men who live in communities where women have less independence and autonomy and men run the show.
  • Men who live and work in contexts – a workplace, a sporting club, a community – where domestic or sexual violence is excused, or played down, or victims are blamed;
  • Men who have friends and relatives who treat women with aggression and disrespect.

Most men do not use violence against women, but these men, they are more likely to use violence than other men.

And in short, we know that men’s domestic and sexual violence against women is tied to gender inequalities

Domestic violence, and sexual violence, are shaped by gender. By gender norms. By gender practices. And by gender structures.

Domestic, family, and sexual violence and the workplace

Domestic, family, and sexual violence is a workplace issue, in four ways.

  • First, most of the women who are victims of men’s violence are in paid employment . And so are most of the men who perpetrate that violence.
  • Second, domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment, and other forms of violence against women have a profound impact on workplaces. They lead to higher rates of absenteeism, loss of productivity, reduced employee morale, and increased need for support in the workplace for victims. Domestic violence has significant impacts on women’s health, both short and long-term, and these limit their workforce productivity and participation.
  • Third, workplaces can be places where the violence happens. A man who is being violent to his partner or ex-partner may harass or stalk her at work. And women (and sometimes men) experience sexual harassment at work.
  • Fourth, workplaces themselves may contribute to or tolerate violence against women.

Some workplaces are part of the problem. They contribute to violence against women. In three ways:

  • [When workplaces are unequal and unfair.] First, workplace gender inequalities – including unfair divisions of labour and power and norms of male dominance – contribute to women’s economic and social disadvantage and men’s privilege. Workplaces thus can intensify the wider gender inequalities in which violence against women flourishes.
  • [When workplaces have violence-supportive cultures.] Second, the cultures of some workplaces encourage and institutionalise violence-supportive social norms. Social norms are everyday expectations about how people should behave. In some workplaces, the social norms are of sexism and disrespect, of bros before hos, codes of loyalty and secrecy.
    • Women who work in these places, or who have contact with the men in these places, face greater risks of victimisation, and the male members are more likely than other men to tolerate and perpetrate violence.
  • [When workplaces lack safety or accountability] Third, workforces can contribute to violence against women through how they respond to employees who are victims of violence or its perpetrators.
    • Some workplaces turn a blind eye to harassment and violence, blame victims, buy their silence, and fail to hold perpetrators accountable.

Preventing and reducing violence

The good news is, there is now good work in workplaces to prevent and reduce this violence and to build gender equality.

Around Australia and around the world, there are growing efforts to prevent and reduce domestic and sexual violence.

Primary prevention is aimed at preventing initial perpetration and victimisation – at preventing people from first suffering violence, and at preventing people from first using violence. It aims to change the social conditions – the structures, norms, and practices – that support and promote domestic and sexual violence.

Engaging men in prevention is an increasing part of this work. In the violence prevention field, there is a growing emphasis on engaging men, on the positive roles that men and boys can play.

There are growing numbers of men who are stepping up and speaking out. Male sporting stars. Corporate leaders. Male writers and actors. The Captain of an all-boys’ school. And ordinary men, the bloke next door.

Around Australia, we see growing numbers of men saying, “This isn’t okay. Women shouldn’t have to suffer this shit. This is a man’s problem. This is our responsibility. We men need to talk about violence against women. We have to raise the bar for what it means to be a good man, a decent bloke. We have to stop being part of the problem, and start being part of the solution.”

There is growing community interest in the positive roles men can play in reducing violence against women, and building gender equalities, in the workplace.

Men can be part of the solution

How can men be part of the solution?

Every single man in the workplace can play a role.

  • First, we can learn. We can learn about violence against women and about sexism and gender inequalities. We can learn about what keeps women out of some types of work, why it is usually men rather than women at the tops of many organisations. We can learn about unconscious bias, about the gender pay gap, about all the subtle ways that sexism and discrimination shape women’s and men’s working lives.
    • And education and training are valuable. Workplace education can raise men’s awareness of issues of gender inequality in general or men’s violence against women in particular.
  • Second, men can put our own houses in order in order. Men can ask ourselves: Do I consistently treat the women (and men) at work with respect? Are there ways that my behaviour might contribute to harassment or sexism or unfair inequalities, whether or not I intend it to? We men can try to build respectful and inclusive relations with women at work, and elsewhere too: at home, on the street, in the pub.
  • Third, men can speak up. We can speak up when we see or hear sexual harassment, or sexist stereotypes, or bias and discrimination. 
    • When you hear a derogatory or sleazy comment about a woman or women in general, you can say something. “What do you mean by that? That’s not cool. How would you feel if that was your sister?”
    • When you’re in a meeting and you see women’s contributions being ignored, women’s voices silenced, you can bring them in, amplify women’s voices, say “Jane said something important a minute ago.”
  • Men can become advocates for workplace change. You can support efforts like the White Ribbon Campaign or other violence prevention events. Support these, work with women, and do the work.
  • Fifth, male managers and leaders can lead change. Men can act as ‘champions’ of violence prevention and gender equality in the workplace. 
    • Men can challenge the structures and systems at work that produce inequality and exclusion. We can challenge unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion, run a gender audit, and set targets for women’s representation.
    • Senior leadership and ownership are vital in setting a standard, assembling resources, providing mentorship, providing vision and guidance, and setting expectations regarding accountability.
    • Men can use your authority, your leadership, your voice, to be a force for change.
    • Note, though, that male ‘champions’ aren’t enough by themselves, and organisational and structural strategies are vital too. We have to make sure that the principle of gender equality isn’t just something that individual leaders can take or leave, but actually built into our very definitions of leadership, and into organisational values. Senior male leaders are more likely to be credible agents of change if they show consistent, genuine support for gender equality initiatives, their support is visible and ongoing, and they ‘walk the walk’.

There are plenty of good guides out there to the positive roles men can play. 

Men as allies: getting it wrong and getting it right

When men start to get involved in these areas, there are some mistakes it’s easy to make. Some common mistakes you may make, mistakes I’ve made.

Rookie mistakes for men to avoid

Seeing only other men as the problem

It is tempting for individual men to think that the problem of men’s violence against women is a problem only of other men. To think, “Violence is a problem of other men, men not like me”. But once we realise the wide range of forms that violence and abuse can take, that’s not so easy.

I have realised that there are times when I have been ‘part of the problem’. Times when as a young man I didn’t really respect a girlfriend’s choices, or downplayed a woman’s competence, or ignored women’s voices and ideas.

In involving ourselves in ending men’s violence against women, men must critically scrutinise our own attitudes and practices, and avoid ‘exceptionalising’ ourselves as fundamentally better than other men.

Taking over

Another common mistake is taking over or dominating. Many men have been socialised to feel that we have the answers, we know what to do. Socialised to be confident in our own views, to take authority.

And that can mean that when we start getting involved in violence prevention, we end up taking over. “Don’t worry ladies, I’ve got it from here.” We may neglect women’s voices and marginalise their work. We may expect to be given leadership, to be in the spotlight, while women do the low-status work. We may expect lots of praise and affirmation from women just for showing up. We may speak for women, not with them.

Trying to ‘rescue’ women

Another common mistake is to play the role of the rescuer: the heroic knight on a white horse, riding in to rescue the poor victim woman and save her from harm. Some men imagine that their role is to ‘protect’ women.

Now, this can come from an okay place, a care and concern for women and girls. But it is limited too.

  • The ‘rescuer’ role treats women as weak, passive, and helpless. It ignores women’s agency, their power, their ability to act.
  • The ‘rescuer’ role treats women as subordinate to men. It has a history in old notions of women as men’s property, where men protect their property from other men. 
  • The ‘rescuer’ role assumes that the rescuer knows what is best, rather than listening to women and to victims, and working in partnership with them.

Waiting until you’re perfect

Another common mistake is to wait until you’re perfect. 

For men to play a positive role, we do not have to be perfect. We do not have to have achieved sainthood. We may have done dodgy things before, but ideally, we have acknowledged the harms we have caused, taken responsibility for them, made amends, and changed our ways.

And when men do get involved, even with the best of intentions, at times we will make mistakes, say the wrong thing. The bottom line is that we take responsibility for our actions and attitudes, recognise the hurt we have caused, and strive for a higher standard.

Talking the talk but not walking the walk

Another common mistake is ‘talking the talk but not walking the walk’. Now, personal change often is partial and uneven. But still, men have a responsibility to shift what we do, not just what we say.

Inviting men in

Many men either don’t recognise the problems of sexual harassment and domestic violence, feel it’s not their problem, or don’t know what to do about it. How can men be invited into the work of violence prevention.

One key strategy is to personalise the issue. Men will listen more readily to concerns about sexual harassment if we can make the issue personal. We can appeal to men’s care and concern for the women and girls in their own lives, the women who they know and who they care about. We can use women’s stories, given the evidence that hearing women’s experiences of violence is a significant source of men’s sensitisation to the issue. Men’s concerns about harms to women can be paternalistic and even patriarchal, and it’s important to move men past this to a fundamental care and respect for the rights, autonomy, and bodily integrity of all women and girls.

A second strategy is to appeal to higher values and principles. Most people in organisations, including senior men and others, have a basic agreement with the idea of a fair go, equality, or fairness. And if we look at the senior men in workplaces who have become advocates for gender equality, one pathway to that is precisely their sense of principle, their sense of values.

Emphasising that men will benefit from progress in addressing sexual harassment and building gender equality is a third strategy. Some men’s resistance to gender initiatives stems from the idea that gender equality is a zero sum game – that as women gain greater equality, men will lose. It is valuable to emphasise instead that gender equality is ‘win-win’. For example, men and women alike benefit from more inclusive workplaces and a more diverse pool of talent. 

One way of advancing this is the ‘business case’, that reducing sexual harassment and building more respectful workplaces is good for the economic bottom line, in terms of higher productivity, lower levels of absenteeism and job detachment, and so on. 

But men also will benefit on a more personal level. Men gain when gender roles and norms are more flexible and diverse, allowing them to take time off to parent, and freeing them from the expectation that as men they must always be tough, stoic, and hyper-competitive. Men also gain when they have more trusting and respectful relations with women, whether in workplaces or elsewhere.

In seeking to reach men, we must start with men wherever they are. We must use language which is meaningful to men, speak to men’s experiences, and address their concerns. In practice, this may mean tailoring conversations to men’s particular circumstances and experiences. It may mean drawing on relevant messengers and role models, individuals who appeal to, are respected by, or are reflective of the men they are speaking to.

A fifth strategy is to begin with the positive and build on men’s strengths. This can mean beginning with the point that most men treat women and girls with respect and most do not harass. Efforts engaging men should seek to build on men’s existing commitments to and involvements in non-violence and respect, particularly to minimise men’s defensiveness and disengagement. At the same time, our work must continue to center a robust critique of sexual harassment. And we should not assume that no one in the room has perpetrated harassment or might do so.

Showing that other men agree is a sixth strategy. Men’s engagement in sexual harassment prevention is hindered by their overestimation of other men’s comfort with violence and unwillingness to intervene. So it is valuable, for example, to gather and disseminate actual data on the extent of other men’s agreement, as ‘social norms’ campaigns do, and to leverage the influence of powerful figures.

If we want men to support sexual harassment prevention and gender equality initiatives, we must also provide concrete opportunities and invitations for their involvement. One key means of doing so is using men’s informal networks, ‘tapping men on the shoulder’ to come along to an event or join a group. Another is to organise trainings, workshops, and conversation groups where sexual harassment or domestic violence is part of a wider discussion about topics which may be appealing to men such as sex, health, dating, communication, or masculinity.

Finally, men, like women, need knowledge and skills in intervention. Men need to know what to do and say when a workmate at the water cooler is telling some sleazy story, or keeps asking someone on a date when it’s very clear that they are not interested, or commenting that women do not belong in leadership positions.

Take-home messages

Domestic, family and sexual violence are workplace issues. Our workplace can be places where victims do not get support, perpetrators’ use of violence is condoned, and our workplace cultures perpetrate the problem. Or, our workplaces can be places where victims are supported and believed, perpetrators are held accountable, and where most people contribute to a workplace that is respectful and safe.

Men can play vital roles in helping to reduce and prevent men’s violence against women. Men who care for women, men who care for justice and equality, and men who care for the wellbeing of our communities and society must act to end violence against women in their own lives and the lives of those around them. 

So let’s do what we can to engage men, with women, in being part of the solution, in building a better world.


Flood, M. (2023). Building respectful and inclusive workplaces: Men’s positive roles in violence prevention. Presentation, Rio Tinto  Global Everyday Respect Taskforce and Gender Equality Employee Resource Group, Brisbane, Australia, December 12 2023.

Note: Also see the Powerpoint slides from this presentation, available here.