Three years after the #MeToo movement travelled through the world, the movement stroke down in Denmark. The country that seemed to be a gender equal paradise, turned out to be everything but. Sexism was swept under the carpet for years and women who tried to talk about it, were silenced. Until now.
Emilie Haugh Rasch (29) and Freja Wedenborg (38) are two of the eleven women who set up an initiative group to fight sexism on the work floor in Denmark. The group set up a petition and more than 700 Danish women signed it. The petition from Emilie and Freja was one of the multiple petitions that were set up after the Danish TV-host Sofie Linde opened up about her experience with sexism in the beginning of her career.
Back in 2017
Before Sofie Linde told her story on national television, the #MeToo movement did not reach Denmark. While in 2017, it touched the whole world and put well known figures like Harvey Weinstein in prison in the United States. But when women in Denmark tried to talk about it, they were silenced by the people around them. “It didn’t get big media attention and it just did not fly. We had a big movie director and the culture there was so toxic, so many violations, but nothing happened. It wasn’t picked up and the women who tried talking about it, were shamed by the media,” Freja tells. According to The Guardian, a research project done by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project shows that almost two in five Danes disapprove of the #Metoo movement. This means that only 4 percent of men and 8 percent of women in Denmark questioned said that they had a ‘very favorable’ impression of the #MeToo movement, compared to 16 percent and 34 percent in Sweden.
When reading these results, is doesn’t come as a big surprise that Denmark didn’t give a lot of attention to the movement back in 2017. However, what did get big media attention, was powerful men coming forward admitting that they slapped women on the butt. But by saying things as: ‘that’s just the way it is’ and ‘it’s a part of me, if you are going to work with me, you know what you are getting into’ in their stories, they made it seem like it was okay. “The women were ridiculed and the men were applauded,” Emilie says with a sigh.
Lise Johansen (40) the head of the Danish women’s organization Kvinderaadet explains why this happened and why Denmark is three years later with the movement.
Sexism and feminism
Talking about sexism is difficult in Denmark and both Freja and Emilie agree with Lise’s words. “It all goes back to feminism and in Denmark, we are not good at being feminists. The countries’ way of thinking about feminism is that it is something to bring men down,” Emilie explains. That Denmark is not a feministic country, is again illustrated by another poll from the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project. The results show that only about 17 percent of the Danish people would call themselves a feminist. In contrast: 46 percent of the Swedish people would see themselves as a feminist.
“We have a culture where is it not accepted to say ‘no’ and where sexism is ‘just something you have to tolerate’,” Freja adds. That sexism happens is a known fact, but because of the culture, talking about it was made impossible. “I think we have all closed our eyes sometimes and walked away, because that’s our way of living,” Emilie sighs. So, whenever women tried to talk about it, it was laughed away. Because being a victim is not something Danish people like to be. “I don’t know why that is, but if you are a victim, you are weak, and we don’t like that about ourselves.”
And seeing yourself as a victim is hard, because when is it sexism and when is it ‘flirting at the bar’? “It’s a very fine line between work and pleasure. You drink beers with the people from work and go you to parties with them. You can do that, and it can be very fun. But it can also bring you in situations where you wonder: are you talking to me because I am a nice person or is it because I am your colleague and you want something from me?”
Sexism isn’t about sex, it’s about power
It is enough
What happened to Emilie and Freja is something that stays private. It scarred them both and it was something awful they had to go through, but both women agreed that it is not about their personal stories. Emilie, who works as a nurse, does think that her experience with sexism comes from the hierarchy system in the hospitals. “When you have a system like that, you see sexism more. In the hospitals it’s everywhere. From experienced nurses, to new doctors, to doctors to be in the academic world, to nurses or doctors applying for a PHD scholarship. You see it everywhere, but nobody talks about it and that’s very unsettling,” Emilie tells. “If you are applying for a PHD scholarship and have to do that to your boss, while he is the one harassing you, you have nowhere to go. You can either accept it or not get the scholarship, or job in other cases.”
But details about what happened, is and will stay private. “It is about the fact that there is sexism happening on the work floor and it ‘doesn’t matter’ what kind of it is. It can be a slap on the butt or rape; it is both sexism and it is both a problem that needs to be addressed in the Danish society,” explains Freja. Emilie agrees: “It is enough, women have told their personal stories many times. Even though it’s important we keep talking about it, more important now is conversations about what needs to change and possible solutions. Instead of always criticizing women to come forward and neglecting their stories.”
But after years of having to stay silent about what happened and not being able to talk about it, it was freeing yet nerve wracking for both women to come forward and say: ‘Hey, this happened to me too’. “It felt like a really safe space where I could share my story with women who went through the same. We were eleven women, standing there together on the front page of the newspapers, instead of just me alone,” shares Emilie. Getting the testimonials from many Danish women was really overwhelming, as Freja describes. “It was a safe place, but we were all a bit nervous in the beginning. What will happen to my career and what will this mean for me when I speak up? Will people retaliate? But we were saying no together and that was a really empowering feeling.”
The petitions received hundreds of signatures and testimonials from women who wanted their stories to be told and heard. For the first time the women’s voice were heard, listened to and broadly published in the media. It was a movement. But only being heard, isn’t enough for Freja and Emilie: they want change. “We have been living in a culture where everyone knew that that one big boss was sleeping with his intern, but nobody said anything about it, because ‘that’s just the way it is’. We want to get to a place where that is not acceptable and where women can say no – without fearing that they will lose their job,” Freja says hopefully. Emilie shares this way of thinking. “It shouldn’t be the case that women just suck it up, because they are too scared of losing their jobs. They shouldn’t have to choose between saying no and risk losing their job or staying silent about sexism just to keep their job. That’s wrong.”
The choice is: suck it up or lose your job
Things the women would want to see change is for example having a confidential person at the workplaces. “This way women can report what happened anonymously, without having to tell their boss immediately. Because it very much could be that their boss is the one doing it.” But also, they want written rules that you are not supposed to have sexual relationships in your workgroup, especially not between superiors and interns, because of the power dynamic that comes with that.
The same consequences men followed in Europe or America during the #MeToo wave in 2017, hasn’t happened yet for the men in Denmark. However, the first consent law was legalized in December, as Lise told. “That’s a whole other problem, because when you are not sure if it was rape or not that you experienced, you don’t take it to the police. They are not educated and would not help you in the way you needed,” Emilie explains. She doubts Denmark will see people go to jail for sexism. “I can’t imagine,” she says. But getting them into jail is not the priority, the priority is to keep talking about it, keep the movement alive and fight for change. And that’s what Emilie and Freja will keep doing.