Many Danes believe that the battle for gender equality has been won, and therefore see no need for feminism and #MeToo. Recent events indicate that many Danish universities now realize that more needs to be done to combat sexism and sexual harassment.
By Ea Høg Utoft, Postdoc, The Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Aarhus BSS
In August 2020, Danish TV host Sofie Linde kickstarted a wave of #MeToo outcries from victims of sexism and sexual harassment in Denmark – including close to 700 signatories from academia.1
Universities ‘tick the boxes’ of key risk factors for sexual harassment, including being male dominated in population and power positions, and being characterized by precarious employment (Skewes, Skewes & Ryan, 2021).
Sexism and sexual harassment are part of a spectrum of ‘different forms of actual and potential forms of gender-based violence residing in higher education systems, ranging from bullying and sexist jargon to sexual abuse and rape’ (Bondestam & Lundquist, 2020, p. 398).
How #MeToo was received in Denmark
It may seem surprising that the #MeToo movement did not have a significant effect in Denmark until three years after it swept the globe back in 2017.
#MeToo was effectively undermined in Denmark in 2017 by media coverage that for the most part delegitimized it and a strong popular backlash (Askanius & Hartley, 2019).
Danes widely subscribe to the belief that gender discrimination is rare or non-existent today. Furthermore, Danish culture champions interpersonal informality and a broad-mindedness in relation to the body and sexuality (known as frisind). These traits likely contributed to the widespread framing of #MeToo as an expression of a ‘grievance culture’ (krænkelseskultur) with no relevance in Denmark.
Therefore, sexism and sexual harassment flew under the radar until 2020, when the #MeToo outcry from Danish scholars finally broke with the existing culture of silence.
In my PhD dissertation (Utoft, 2020a), I theorized the Danish context as a ‘postfeminist gender regime’ in order to understand why Denmark seems to stand out in comparison with the other Scandinavian countries.
Most recently, Denmark plummeted down the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index from number 14 in 20202 to number 29 in 2021.3 The notion of the ‘postfeminist gender regime’ can assist us in understanding some of the cultural dynamics within the Danish context that contribute to producing such adverse outcomes.
Postfeminism’s silencing of discrimination
At the heart of the ‘postfeminist gender regime’ lies an entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist ideas. People celebrate gender equality, which is believed to be achieved, from which follows that there is no longer any need for feminism or feminist politics.
As gender equality is legally institutionalised today, and discrimination prohibited, women are widely presumed to face no obstacles in the labour market. People generally construe organizations and professions as gender-neutral, and meritocracy and objectivity are championed as the hallmarks of progressive workplaces.
Interventions to promote gender equality therefore lead to significant opposition. Opponents claim that ‘gender equality is going too far’ and women, who are often targeted for career-boosting activities, refuse to see themselves as victims of any disadvantage, because now the idea of ‘victimhood’ has become taboo.
Gender neutrality and meritocracy further produce a lack of feminist language that allows people to speak about inequality only in individual terms, making the women responsible for handling discrimination when they face it. If women do raise their voices about injustice, they may be accused of exaggerating in order to get attention. They are often presented as humourless prudes who are out to end romance.
All of the above-mentioned factors compile to delegitimize women’s experiences of discrimination, which leaves the status quo of masculine work cultures unquestioned. In this way, postfeminism significantly limits the space within which gender equality policy-makers and practitioners can manoeuvre in their efforts to create organizational change (Utoft, 2020b).
Nevertheless, we have seen increasing pressure on universities to address gender issues.4 Below, I examine whether the 700 #MeToo signatures have made a difference.
Responses and actions
The responses to the #MeToo movement in 2020 by leaderships of Danish universities do not seem as unambiguously ‘postfeminist’ as before. For example, the leadership at the University of Southern Denmark5 (SDU) expressed their gratitude to those who had come forward and disclosed their stories of sexism and sexual harassment. Aarhus University’s6 (AU) leadership declared that sexism is part of the structural inequalities that exist in the academic system, which are a key focus area in its newly launched gender equality action plan.
As outlined above, a key postfeminist silencing mechanism is that women, by naming the problem of sexism and harassment, become the problem (Ahmed, 2015). By thanking victims for their courage in speaking out and by employing language of structural sexism, the universities now seemingly go against this practice.
What concretely have Danish universities done in response to sexism and sexual harassment in the past six months?
All Danish universities have gender equality or diversity policies. However, policies risk being seen as sufficient action in themselves, suggesting commitment to the anti-discrimination agenda without implementing actual preventative or responsive interventions.
Although information is not easily accessible online, universities such as SDU, AU, Copenhagen University, and the Technical University of Denmark have established procedures for handling complaints of sexual harassment.
A central problem with the implementation of complaint reporting and management procedures is that they are often built on the assumption that it is possible to solve issues of prevalence by improving victim’s ability to formally complain. Furthermore, such procedures risk potentially decontextualizing individual incidences from the broader working environment, thus, failing to address the complexity of sexual harassment.
Finally, the implementation of such structures also seems conspicuously at odds with the well-known issue of under-reporting. The focus on cases and not culture, and the emphasis on victims needing to ‘empowering’ themselves to act are part of the individualizing tendency of postfeminism.
Few universities focus on prevention as opposed to reporting
In general, this article’s brief analysis of available documents indicates that only a few universities go beyond the establishment of a reporting system in response to sexism and sexual harassment.
Some universities publish recommendations for prevention initiatives targeting workplace culture and interpersonal interactions. Some offer advice on how to prevent ‘offensive behaviours’ including harassment (often labelled neither as gender nor sexual harassment), stressing the need for inclusive working environments which encourage people to object to offensive behaviours.
Some HR departments arrange training events. Although the literature suggests only short-term effects of sexual harassment trainings on participants’ attitudes, Bondestam and Lundquist (2020) find – based on their review – that men who do not participate in trainings ‘are less inclined to see or define sexually harassing behaviours as in fact’ sexual harassment (p. 407).
A final response that should be mentioned comes, not from Danish universities, but from the women who initiated and coordinated the #MeToo petition in October 2020. With the webpage www.sexismedu.dk and the book ‘Sexism in Danish Higher Education and Research’7, the group presents a catalogue of vignettes based on the personal experiences of sexism and harassment disclosed to them by Danish scholars, in addition to an extensive literature review on sexism and relevant policies.
A move post-postfeminism?
Danish universities have undeniably changed their approach. Denial and lack of action have been replaced by recognition and declarations of intentions to act. However, it is too soon to evaluate the effects of these changes. The objective of this article has been to show how we may be witnessing a gradual move post-postfeminism, in which the postfeminist «common sense» no longer precludes action altogether but continues to limit the space with which universities can maneuver in their efforts to change the organization.
Finally, given the recent political attacks against the gender scholarship which informs organizational gender equality work, it will be interesting to see what the Danish universities will do next.
Agger, R., Jónasdóttir, L. A., Fog, E. F. & Søndergård, A. (2020, October 8) 689 forskere oplever sexistisk adfærd i universitetsverdenen. Politiken. https://politiken.dk/indland/art7954854/689-forskere-oplever-sexistisk-adfærd-i-universitetsverdenen
Ahmed, Sara (2015) Sexism: A Problem with a Name. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 86(1), 5-13.
Askanius, T. & Hartley, J. M. (2019) Framing gender justice: A comparative analysis of the media coverage of #metoo in Denmark and Sweden. Nordicom Review, 40(2), 19-36.
Bondestam, F., & Lundqvist, M. (2020) Sexual harassment in higher education–a systematic review. European Journal of Higher Education, 10(4), 397-419.
Einersen, A. F., Krøjer, J., Muhr, S. L., Munar, A. M., Myers, E. S. & Plotnikof, M. (2021) Sexism in Danish Higher Education and Research. https://sexismedu.dk/get-the-book/
Skewes, L., Skewes, J. C., & Ryan, M. K. (2021) Attitudes to Sexism and the# MeToo Movement at a Danish University. NORA-Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/08038740.2021.1884598
Utoft, E. H. (2020a) Motivation, organisational gender equality work and the postfeminist gender regime: A feminist approach. Aarhus: Politica Ph.D. Series. https://politica.dk/politicas-phd-serie/
Utoft, E. H. (2020b) Maneuvering within postfeminism: A study of gender equality practitioners in Danish academia. Gender, Work & Organization, 28(1), 301-317.
- The European Commission’s “Horizon Europe” programme increases gender requirements for funding eligibility: https://op.europa.eu/s/o9Jp
The Danish Ministry for Higher Education and Science annually publishes its «Talent Barometer» report, in which, in its 2018 version, the Danish’s universities were ranked based on their perfor- mance on gender equality policy and extent of gender equality work: https://ufm.dk/publikationer/2019/maend-og-kvinder-pa-de-danske-universiteter-danmarks-talentbarometer-2018 (p. 84)
- Einersen, Krøjer, Muhr, Munar, Myers & Plotnikof, 2021, open access draft version available.
Main photo: Zinkevych