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Nordic conference on sexual harassment: “High time to go from me too to me neither” 

Participants at the Nordic conference Prevent and Intervene - Ending Sexual Harassment at Work.

Joint efforts, research and shared knowledge in the Nordic Region are needed to put an end to sexual harassment in the workplace. This was stated by the Norwegian Minister of Gender Equality and Culture, Lubna Jaffery, in her opening speech at the Nordic conference Prevent and Intervene – Ending Sexual Harassment at Work. ‘It’s an ambitious goal, but there is no alternative. It’s high time to move from me too to me neither’, she said.


Women are at greatest risk of experiencing sexual harassment. Factors such as age, ethnicity, education, functional variation and sexual identity also affect both exposure and the ability and opportunity for employees and employers to deal with what happens. Research from several studies in the Nordic countries shows that around one third of all women are exposed at some point during their working life.

‘We have had some large studies every few years and we do not see harassment go down. We use the word epidemic for this’, said Dagný Aradóttir Pind, lawyer at the Icelandic trade union BSRB, who took part in a dialogue on prevention with Joakim Aadland, director of Balansekunst in Norway, and Jeanine Førland, advisor in HR and personnel analysis at the Norwegian Police University College, moderated by Hannah Helseth.

The project Sexual Harassment in Tourism and Hospitality – using the past and present to inform the future emphasised the need for targeted and accessible knowledge about sexual harassment to ensure that training and information materials actually reach people. Both employees and managers in the Nordic tourism sector are often young. Many are also not native speakers of Nordic languages. 

Questions about behaviour reveal harassment

Joakim Aadland from the stakeholder organisation Balansekunst represented the cultural sector, where vulnerability is high because insecure employment and freelance assignments are so common. A study conducted by the organisation shows how answers are affected by how the questions are asked.

‘When we asked ‘have you ever been exposed to sexual harassment’, very few people said yes. When we asked specific questions about have you experienced this or that, the numbers went up. So that makes it even harder to work on this topic’, he said.

To obtain comparable data on sexual harassment in the Nordic region, the IWS-Nordic project has developed a standardised questionnaire based on questions about different behaviours. The Inventory of Workplace Sexual Harassment form is available on the project’s website in Danish and English, and soon in Norwegian and Swedish.

Workplace culture needs change

In the service and retail sector, the risk of exposure is high among those who interact with customers on a daily basis. The project Customer Sexual Harassments in the Nordic Service Workplace highlighted how the Nordic service culture can affect safety. Focusing on the customer and making the customer happy becomes a kind of overarching principle that affects the entire organisation, explained Markus Fellesson and Anna Fyrberg Yngfalk, both lecturers at the Centre for Service Research, Karlstad University.

‘Even in situations when arguably you shouldn´t provide any kind of service anymore you still do it, because that´s what you do if you´re doing your job in a proper way, Markus Fellesson said.

‘It´s essential to question the ideals and discourse and practices of service management because we see that this way of managing enables violence to unfold’, said Anna Fyrberg Yngfalk.

Several panel discussions and presentations discussed the gap between legal definitions and how sexual harassment is understood in practice, how grey zones are perceived, speaking “the same language” or even having a language to talk about the problem. To create a common understanding, regular training is needed. And often the workplace culture is the major challenge. 

‘When sexist harassment occurs in workplaces it is a sign that the workplace culture, hierarchies, organizational structures and work relations hold a every day sexist nature that enables sexual harassment, said Marta Padovan-Özdemir, Associate Professor at the Centre for Gender, Power and Diversity, Roskilde University, who presented the project Power Plays – preventing sexual harassment through memory work & forum theatre in workplaces of care.

Claus Jervell, secretary of the Norwegian Fellesforbundet, leads the union’s training programmes to change workplace cultures and engage bystanders, those who witness sexual harassment. These efforts have resulted in more people coming forward.

‘It´s not like most men harass women, but most men are passive bystanders in a culture where this is a part of the culture. Our work was to make passive bystanders active agents against harassment by giving them responsibility and tools. As a result we now have many cases of harassment coming in to the Union, both in our own organization and from the workplaces’, he said in a dialogue about translating research into practice, with Fredrik Bondestam, Director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, University of Gothenburg.

Management’s responsibility to build trust

To achieve change, everyone in the workplace needs to be involved. This is also the aim of the project “Speak Up!” – a practice-oriented research project on the prevention of Sexual Harassment (SUSH) which focuses particularly on bystanders, and which now also has continued funding from Nordforsk. One conclusion of the project is that a bottom-up perspective is preferable in workplace training programmes.

‘With an imancipatory approach it was possible to capture employees interests, their ability and collective resources to generate effective solutions to preventing sexual harassment’, said Linda Lane, senior lecturer at the Department of Social Work, University of Gothenburg, who represented the Swedish part of the joint Nordic project.

Jeanine Førland addressed the responsibility of management to support employees’ dialogue on sexual harassment, create a learning work environment and build trust. 

‘For people to report what they´re experiencing they have to trust how you will carry them through it, and how you will conduct it in the rest of the organization as well’, she said.

The conference was summarised by Sirið Stenberg, Minister for Social Affairs and Culture of the Faroe Islands, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland and Minister for Gender Equality gave the closing speech. 

 ‘We need training and dialogue and it´s crucial for implementing strategies and prevention. It´s up to us to break the silence and to create an environment where everyone feels protected’, said Sirid Stenberg.

‘Changing workplace culture attitudes and policies takes time and the fight against sexual harassment and violence continues. Sadly, we are not there yet’, said Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

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Updated 17 November 2023