Skip to main content

Review: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Remains Widespread in the Nordic Countries

Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal in all Nordic countries. But despite employers’ far-reaching responsibilities, reports of violations remain disturbingly common. One problem, say experts, is that the laws are not followed.

The MeToo campaign shows that sexual harassment is a widespread problem in Nordic workplaces, despite being prohibited. Each Nordic country has several laws regulating the issue. The responsibility to create a work environment free from sexual harassment is mainly placed on employers. But how well does the legal protection really work?
Hugrún R. Hjaltadóttir works at the Icelandic Centre for Gender Equality (Jafnréttisstofa), which oversees employers’ gender equality plans. She believes that Iceland’s laws against sexual harassment in fact are good, and that the problem is rather that employers tend to be too passive.

‘We get calls about sexual harassment and know it’s going on, but the problem is that the employers don’t do anything. There is a need for more money to make employers better aware of how they should act. They need support in their prevention efforts.’

Hugrún Hjaltadóttir
Hugrún Hjaltadóttir.

A new ordinance that went into effect in 2015 increased the pressure on employers to actively prevent sexual harassment. According to Hjaltadóttir, the ordinance needs to be followed up, both with resources and with regulations making the consequences tougher for non-compliers.

‘Employers that violate the law should face direct financial consequences, or else there is no incentive to prioritise these issues,’ she says.

Greatest Impact in Sweden

Sweden is the Nordic country where the MeToo campaign has had the strongest impact. Sweden also places the highest demands on employers when it comes to preventive work. Since 1 January 2017, Swedish employers have been required to take active measures to prevent discrimination and promote equal rights. The national non-discrimination act urges employers to actively examine the presence of sexual harassment in the workplace, for example by paying attention to jargon and checking the work environment for offensive pictures.
Caroline Bleichner, gender scholar and legal adviser at the Vision trade union, hopes that the legislative amendment will add fuel to the development in the area.

‘This law requires employers to be active. It has good intentions and also gives trade unions the right to information about an employer’s work in the area. Many of the testimonies that have surfaced in the MeToo campaign are about things that have happened in the past, I hope that the law will lead to changes.’

According to Bleichner, the MeToo campaign shows that many employers have problems dealing with these issues, but also that many victims find it difficult to speak up.
‘As we live in a patriarchy, victims are often treated with suspicion, which makes it even harder to start a process.’

She believes that the local section of the union plays an important role in offering support, both when someone is violated and when it comes to the prevention work.
‘If the employer does not comply with the law, the union can get involved and take appropriate action. One problem when evaluating an employer’s efforts, however, is that the law doesn’t say anything about the required quality of the work. It does require employers to implement active measures, but fails to require a certain quality of the work.’

Focusing on the Employer’s Responsibility

In all Nordic countries, the legislation focuses on the employer’s responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment. A person who touches a colleague’s buttocks or comments on her breasts rarely faces any consequences. In Norway, the national equality and anti-discrimination ombudsman handles complaints of discrimination and harassment. People can report harassment related to the established grounds for discrimination, such as ethnicity and sexual orientation, to the ombudsman, but not sexual harassment. Helga Eggebø, Norwegian sociologist and social commentator, argues that this should be changed.

Helga Eggebø
Photo: Karoline O.A. Pettersen

‘The legal protection for victims of sexual harassment is extremely weak in Norway. If the equality and anti-discrimination ombudsman also administered and investigated sexual harassment, the system would become more legally secure. The most obvious change would be that sexual harassment would be equated with and administered as other forms of harassment,’ she says.

It would also contribute to important case law on sexual harassment in the workplace, which is currently missing in Norway, according to Helga Eggebø.
‘The present situation is not sustainable. The requirements imposed on employers exist only on paper. Nobody is monitoring them or ensuring that they really work proactively with this issue.’

What Do You Think Is Needed in Order for Employers to Do a Better Job?
‘The requirement for employers to work against sexual harassment should be designed more like strict environmental requirements, where employers have to undergo certain procedures to be compliant.’

Updated 10 December 2019