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Sexual Harassments Widespread in the Nordic Countries

Sexual harassment in the hotel and restaurant industry is a widespread problem across the Nordic region. Experts from all Nordic countries recently met in Reykjavik to discuss solutions.

Eygló Harðardóttir. Pressbild
 Eygló Harðardóttir. Pressbild

In connection with the opening of the Nordic conference on sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, Eygló Harðardóttir, Iceland’s Minister of Social Affairs and Housing, said that the growing tourism in all Nordic countries is making sexism and sexual harassment in the hospitality industry an increasingly important issue.

Paula Mulinari, senior lecturer at Malmö University in Sweden, keynoted the conference. She pointed out that 30 years ago, the Nordic languages did not even have a term for harassment. She also said that sexual harassment is a problem at both individual and societal level, and added that there are both political and legal ways to change the situation.

Nordic research

Lizette Risgaard (LO, Denmark), Pontus Sjöstrand (Visita, Sweden) Malin Ackholt (Hotell- och restaurangfacket, Sweden) Paula Mulinari (Malmö University, Sweden) and Seija Virta (Palvelualojen ammattiliitto, PAM, Finland)
 Lizette Risgaard (LO, Denmark), Pontus Sjöstrand (Visita, Sweden) Malin Ackholt (Hotell- och restaurangfacket, Sweden) Paula Mulinari (Malmö University, Sweden) and Seija Virta (Palvelualojen ammattiliitto, PAM, Finland)

The conference was financed by The Nordic Council of Ministers Funding Scheme for Gender Equality. Researchers from all Nordic countries presented their work. Steinunn Rögnvaldsdóttir, researcher from Iceland, said that 60 per cent of all restaurant workers are women and that the waiting staff experience the highest rates of harassment in the workplace. On average, 61.7 per cent say they have been harassed by customers, 32.1 per cent by co-workers and 21 per cent by managers and supervisors. Rögnvaldsdóttir said we need to find out whether the workers know their rights and who to contact for support.

Seija Virta from Finland said that many of those who experience sexual harassment think it is difficult to ask for support. She also said that it is particularly problematic when the perpetrator is a co-worker. In addition, Finnish research has shown that many managers and supervisors do not take the problem seriously. Only one-quarter of those who have reported sexual harassment feel that their manager or supervisor has reacted, said Virta.

A societal problem – but who is responsible?

Claus Jervell from the Norwegian Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud said that sexual harassment in the hospitality industry is a serious and widespread problem. He pointed out that the root of the problem is that there is no consensus in society that it is indeed a problem. He also asked who is responsible to deal with the problem. Jervell called it a work environment problem that we must and can solve, and that doing so will be both easy and inexpensive.

Possible solutions

  • Acknowledge the problem and listen to those who are affected.
  • Talk about the problem with those who are not affected.
  • Create routines based on a concrete risk assessment.
  • Require managers and supervisors to act whenever cases of harassment are reported.
  • Require everybody who is aware of harassment to report and/or stop the practice.

Time to break the silence

Schwarzenberger, writer and project leader
Schwarzenberger, writer and project leader

Sonja Schwarzenberger led a panel debate at the conference. She is a writer and project manager and has authored the book Bryt tystnaden (break the silence) together with Naiti del Sante. According to Schwarzenberger, one problem is that feelings of shame keep many female victims from speaking up. She said that all Nordic countries should introduce minimum standards for preventive work and that we need to clearly communicate that sexual harassment is unacceptable.

The primary question asked in the panel debate was: What responsibility does the labour market have in the prevention of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace? The panellists agreed that more action is needed. Statistics show that young women experience the highest rates of sexual harassment. It is important that they feel comfortable breaking the silence and asking for support.

The experts at the conference also agreed that one of the most important things to do is to make everybody involved aware of the problem. It’s about introducing new values and a new culture. It’s about providing handbooks and guidelines. Changing the law is not enough if managers and supervisors don’t know how to deal with sexual harassment when it happens, said the experts. They also emphasised the importance of the Nordic cooperation, as it enables the countries to find solutions to sexism and sexual harassments together.

Updated 2 May 2020