Change the Course - a student's reaction to the report on sexual assault and harassment at Australian Universities

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Recently the Australian Human Rights commission released a report which outlined their findings into the nature and prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment within Australian universities: 51% of university students were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016

6.9% of respondents reported being sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016.

This week, we asked our researcher, Sophia Kimmins, to share her insights in response to the report. It's a thoughtful and emotional reflection that highlights how we all have a role to play in addressing the issues raised by this report. 

As a student at Melbourne University and a member of an associated residential college the findings of this report has stimulated conversation amongst my peers. What has struck me though, is not the findings of the report itself but that the report was met with surprise by so many of my college and university fellows.

It would seem that when we think about sexual harassment and assault we consider it to be perpetrated and experienced by others, certainly not something that manifests within the lives of Australia’s privately educated, middle-class university students and college residents.

Many are now asking why this toxic culture of misogyny and entitlement revealing itself within some of Australia’s most highly educated and promising young men? A short trip down memory lane for me reveals many examples of how this behaviour is bred.

It starts at school...

I remember when I was at school being horrified when I would occasionally attend my brothers rugby games to see literally hundreds of girls as young as 14 make the trip out to the rugby fields of numerous private boys schools across Brisbane to cheer the young men on. Of course, at the same girls’ netball games there wouldn’t be a boy in sight.

To see those girls spending their Saturdays out at the rugby with no expectation of reciprocation used to make me want to tear my hair out, or at the very least hire a bus and drop them all home. Whilst this seems like an innocent cultural norm, it instilled an unconscious bias that it is ok to expect girls to be subservient to their needs and egos. They were not taught that we are their equals.

Boys will be boys

When I transitioned from school to college and university, I was hopeful that the perhaps innocent but ever-present patriarchy that underpinned my time at high school would be something of the past.

Yet just a fortnight ago, as I put forward the arguments in favour of affirmative action to address systemic bias against women making it to leadership roles, it was explained to me by a male dinner companion that the reason fewer women run ASX200 companies than men named John is women are naturally less competitive. He went on to assert that affirmative action simply breeds inept female CEOs and politicians.

But it’s the “boys will be boys” behaviours that need to be called out too.

Prue recently relayed a story about a past Collegians dinner she attended recently. She was aghast that some 20 young men thought it appropriate to tear off their pants and hijack the dance floor. Prue couldn’t recall the song. Sadly, having witnessed the same behaviour numerous time before, I was able to tell her it was Eagle Rock.

It's time to change the course

I grew up believing that women will be equally represented in leadership roles when I enter the workforce. But what I have so far been exposed to at university, together with research I have been exposed to, such as that conducted by Harvard into the attitudes and expectations of male and female MBA graduates that revealed men’s expectations that their careers will take precedence over their female partners’ applied equally to men in their twenties as to those in previous generations, suggests that without significant interventions, that will not be the case.

The Report by the Human Rights Commission made a number of recommendations. I admit to feeling somewhat disheartened when I finished reading them, as the emphasis on responding to these incidents rather than prevention, together with no focus on how to capture the imagination of students for building respectful relationships and making our campuses and colleges safe. I have a vision for how it should be; and I believe, collectively, we can change the course. But the response must ensure an opportunity for our male friends to acknowledge our experiences, and to be part of the change required.

Just like me, my male friends have been graced with a life of enviable privilege: outstanding education,  connections and professional opportunities. It is my hope that in response to the findings of this report, my male friends will recognise their privilege, and start calling out the sexist jokes, behaviours and attitudes described in this report.