A new wave of #MeToo allegations has hit Denmark’s media industry, prompting some Danes to reevaluate whether their open, tolerant country is as open and tolerant as they have long been made to believe.
It began early in September, when one of Danish television’s most prominent personalities, Sofie Linde, took to the stage as the host of a prestigious nationally broadcasted awards show. Speaking directly into the camera, she made an allegation that shocked the country.
An unnamed “big-shot” television star had sought her out, she said, at a Christmas lunch with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), Denmark’s national public service broadcaster.
Linde – just 18 years old when the incident took place, and a complete newcomer in the industry – continued: “We were attending a Christmas lunch, and I’d been looking forward to it. This TV big-shot comes up to me, takes a hold of my arm and says to me: ‘If you don’t come with me and suck my dick I’ll fucking destroy your career. I’ll destroy you.’
“I’m fairly sure you’re looking at me right now. You know who you are.”
Within a few weeks, over 1,600 women in the media industry – including many high-profile TV and radio personalities – had signed an open letter of support, commending Linde for her bravery.
“You are right. We experienced it too. It happened once. It still happens,” the letter reads. “We have all experienced it to some degree throughout our careers. Inappropriate comments on our appearance or outfits. Sleazy messages. Unacceptable physical behaviour. Warnings that there are some men we should avoid at the Christmas lunch. Those who believe this sexist culture no longer exists are wrong.”
The letter went on to urge media executives to shift their attention from the victims to the perpetrators, and to address the problem at its root. In a call for collective action, it pushed for the creation of clear, fixed boundaries for what is acceptable behaviour, and the establishment of a framework that would make it safe and comfortable to speak up about incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace.
“We have gone from discussing if the problem exists, to having affirmed that it is a problem in our line of business – not just in our industry, but on our job market,” said Tine Johansen, Chairwoman of the Danish Union of Journalists (DJ), which represents about 18,000 workers in journalism, media and communications. “This is a problem that must be attacked from many sides, and it is and will always be a job for the management in the individual workplace to create a safe environment for everyone.”
In a survey carried out by DJ, 10.7 percent of members replied “yes” when asked if they had experienced sexual harassment within the last ten years. When asked about the last 12 months, that number was 4.7 percent.
According to Helena Gleesborg Hansen, president of the Danish Women’s Society, young people just starting their careers have been especially vulnerable.
“We know that many victims of sexual harassment end up being bullied out or simply fired from their workplace,” she told VICE News. “Often, the perpetrator is shuffled out the backdoor, or they get to keep their job through settlements, and that’s why many people don’t speak up about their experiences. You can’t see the consequences it has for the perpetrator. You can only see the consequences it has for yourself.”
Some media executives have played it safe by acknowledging that the problem exists, but only in isolated incidents. Others have vowed to scrutinise the current frameworks in their workplaces to see if new measures need to be implemented to better protect their staff from sexual harassment. Some outlets have even invited external consultants to investigate sexism in their workplace.
This latter move was welcomed with enthusiasm at The Danish Centre for Research on Women and Gender (Kvinfo), which works to provide the public with information about women’s studies and gender research. According to Kvinfo’s director, Henriette Laursen, previous investigations into sexual harassment in the workplace have tended to ask questions such as: “Have you experienced sexual harassment in the workplace?” – a phrasing that can instil doubt into whether or not a specific experience did in fact constitute harassment. If the respondent replies “no”, such surveys are typically programmed to simply move on to other questions that don’t concern sexual harassment.
To gain more accurate insights, Laursen said, surveys should instead ask about specific types of incidents. “Have you ever experienced groping in the workplace,” is one example. “Have you ever felt pressured to perform a sexual action by a person in a position of power at your place of work,” is another. Some surveys of this nature have found that as many as 17 to 20 percent of respondents have had such experiences, indicating that cases are much more widespread than previously believed.
“When you do investigations properly, in a manner that doesn’t cover up but uncovers the issue, it becomes somewhat harder to just brush it off,” Laursen explained.
Last Friday, Linde met with Minister for Gender Equality, Mogens Jensen of the Social Democrats, to discuss what steps come next in the fight against sexual harassment in the media. The Minister has also scheduled meetings with a number of other organisations – among them are the journalists’ union, the Danish Women’s Society and Kvinfo.
“Many people don’t know what to do in these situations,” said Hansen. “Should I contact management, the working environment authority or my union? It must become easier to figure out what your rights are and where you can report incidents, and there must be someone you can go to if it’s management that is the perpetrator. Lastly, we want to raise the compensation fees for victims, as this is very low still.”
Laursen, who has already met with the minister, said she presented him with two main initiatives: “We have asked to increase the legal protection in the shape of significantly bigger compensations, and to increase the level of employer responsibility. We presented an idea that forces employers to prevent sexual harassment, and if they don’t make an active effort the workplace can be held accountable.”
In a statement to VICE News, Jensen said he welcomed the new wave of #MeToo debates, and that he felt “deep respect” for Linde and other women who have “put themselves on the line”.
“The personal stories are important because they shed light on the issue and can promote real change, but at the same time, I believe it is important to ensure that the debate doesn’t dwell on the personal stories, but is used to paint a broader picture of a structural pattern and a problem in society at large,” he said.
The minister was hesitant to promise legislative changes, saying that “the fundamental problem lies within toxic workplace cultures” and that the challenges must be tackled there.
“Management must enable a workplace culture based on mutual respect between leaders and employees, as well as between co-workers,” Jensen added. “The workplace must ensure that no one feels pressured to do something they don’t want to, that no one feels entitled to misuse their power or position, and where everyone has the right and possibility to say no or to interfere if they experience harassment.
“I am not excluding any legislative measures this time around, but I do believe that we need to look deeper into the workplace at this stage.”