How to work effectively with sexism

Qualified knowledge, focus on culture and long-term efforts are key to working with sexism in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is prohibited

The Equal Treatment Act prohibits sexual harassment and defines it as discrimination.

§ 1. 5 defines harassment as “any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct in relation to a person’s gender for the purpose or effect of violating that person’s dignity and creating a threatening, hostile, degrading, humiliating or unpleasant climate.”

§ 1. 6 reads: “Sexual harassment exists when any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical behavior is exhibited with sexual undertones for the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, in particular by creating a threatening, hostile, degrading, humiliating or unpleasant climate.”

Source: Retsinformation

Combating sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace is best done when the workplace works together to change the situation, while the management gives it priority and takes the lead. The effort should have a long-term perspective and focus on culture and norms.

The first step is for the workplace to decide to know the extent, see the importance of fighting the problem and prevent it from occurring.

Here are recommendations for three main areas of work.

Mapping: Assume that your workplace has a problem

Sexism and sexual harassment are largely associated with taboos. Workplaces risk the problems growing in secret if they rely on the three-year, statutory workplace assessments showing ‘nothing’. Likewise if leaders and union representatives do not know about cases and on that basis report that neither sexism nor harassment exists.

Instead, map out the extent and nature of the problems. In this way you can base the work against sexism on knowledge and not on myths. It is a better starting point for further work and at the same time it contributes to an understanding of community and trust and so the study itself contributes to creating a culture where sexual harassment has difficult conditions.

The specific mapping should include:

  • questionnaire survey
  • individual interviews
  • focus group interviews
  • review of routines, procedures and policies.

In this regard pay attention to four things:

  • Ask the right questions. Sexism and sexual harassment are concepts that many find difficult to define. If you ask the question, “Have you been sexually harassed?”, you might get answers that reflect attitude, interpretation, and a general discussion of the problem rather than the actual occurrence of the problem. Instead, ask concretely and accurately about events. For example: “Has anyone tried to force you into sexual acts (for example, intercourse, oral sex, anal sex or forced masturbation)?” or “Have you experienced that your body, sexuality or appearance was commented on in a way that you found offensive or unpleasant?” Use this link for more advice on how to ask specific questions to map the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Be curious about your own workplace culture. It is common to be blind to the culture you work in. Therefore, curiosity and openness to your own culture is important in the work against sexism and sexual harassment. Here, knowledge of bias and norms is an important starting point, just as awareness of gender and other identities and categories – for example age, disability, race, religion, level of education – are relevant when sexism and sexual harassment are to be uncovered and combated.
  • Seek external assistance. Swedish companies recommend the use of external assistance, as it strengthens the work against sexism and sexual harassment. In this way you can get expert help, and because the external person or persons are not part of the culture where sexism may thrive. At the same time, it is crucial to ensure anonymity in interviews and questionnaire responses.
  • Policies should inspire conversations, not end them. Definitive formulations that mark a stance against sexism can have the regrettable effect of closing off the important conversations instead of nurturing and inspiring them. “We have zero tolerance” is an example of a tangible but ‘closed’ formulation. Use action-oriented language instead, and make it easy to understand what the aim is. It could be: “The whole workplace works to prevent sexism and sexual harassment by developing a common language for what is not acceptable, and by updating our policies together every year, renewing and strengthening the conversation about sexism and keep status of progress. ” At the same time, working on routines, procedures and policies should also include their dissemination, to ensures that all employees know them.

Widespread sexual abuse

34 percent of women and 25 percent of men have been abused in the workplace in Denmark, according to a report from 2019 from the Danish Trade Union Confederation. The study asks for violations such as touching, intrusive questions on private and sex life or being forced to watch porn.

KVINFO has investigated the situation in the IT industry and among interns in the media industry. Among trainees in the media industry, 51 percent of women and 27 percent of men have experienced violations. Read the survey on the IT industry here and the survey among media trainees here.

Confront work culture rather than individuals

There is a tendency to see sexism and sexual harassment as a problem for the individual and especially for the person who is the victim of harassment, sexism or both.

It requires more comprehensive thinking to work on the problem. Partly because harassment grows out of a culture in the workplace that turn the blind eye or even allows it. And partly because everyone in the workplace has a share in changing the culture – not just the offender, who must stop, and the offended.

With the individualised approach, the workplace puts an unreasonable pressure on the abused by expecting the person in question to resign or leave the workplace.

Working with changing work culture can take many forms. Here are four examples:

  • Respond to small hints. Sexism and sexual harassment are closely linked to workplace well-being and the degree of equality and diversity. These are extensive issues, but it can be helpful to act on the small things as well. It’s possibly a cliché to talk about bad jokes. But it can be a good first step to tackle exactly the bad jokes, because if they are not fun for everyone, it can be one of the first signs of a problematic culture where neither well-being, equality nor diversity thrive.
  • End a culture of silence. Work to ensure that everyone can and will say stop when words or actions violate or are about to do so. This is both if they themselves are victims of violations, and if they see or hear others being violated. There are two effects: The concrete action is stopped, and you create a workplace where everyone takes part and contributes to a positive culture. In general it is central to create inclusive processes when working against sexism and sexual harassment, so that there is wide support and commitment to it.
  • Attend a course. It has both symbolic value and concrete value if all or part of the workplace gets their knowledge of sexism and sexual harassment optimized and is equipped with the most effective tools.
  • Pursue equality and diversity. Studies show that the risk of sexism is highest in workplaces where one gender dominates. Make a plan for how the workplace can recruit and retain many types of employees.

How the director works with sexism

As director of the Danish Medicines Agency, Thomas Senderovitz took the lead in creating a culture in the workplace that clearly and dedicatedly fights sexism and promotes diversity. In the video below, Thomas Senderovitz talks about this work and his thoughts on it.

Thomas Senderovitz is currently Senior Vice President of Novo Nordisk.

Even with the best methods and tools, cultural change is a demanding task, not least for the individual employee. Therefore: if you are a manager, take the lead and take control of the culture change. For example, you can make use of the GenderLAB tool, which KVINFO has developed in collaboration with CBS. It uses design thinking to include many actors and perspectives in an inclusive process that generates the workplace’s own contextual solutions. Read about GenderLAB at this link.

Make the working against sexism and sexual harassment a central effort in the workplace

Combating sexism and sexual harassment does not just require effective and qualified tools. It also takes time. At the same time, sexism is closely linked to a lack of well-being, diversity and equality, and progress on one parameter goes hand in hand with progress on the others. Therefore, a key piece of advice is to link these issues together in the ongoing work.

In this regard four elements are important:

  • Set goals. Agree on what the goals are for the work against sexism and for diversity. Measure every year and make the results known to everyone in an accessible way and in comprehendible language. One goal may be, for example, the ability of team leaders to foster diversity, because diversity provides poor conditions for sexual harassment.
  • Evaluate. Again, community is important when evaluating goals and outcomes. This part of the work should include many if not all employees. In this way, the effort becomes part of the workplace as such, and not just a task for a special working group.
  • Follow up. Adjust goals and resources on an ongoing basis.
  • Document. Continuous and annual documentation ensures transparency and progress. At the same time, it makes the work less personal and thus less vulnerable.

This systematic approach has several benefits. On the one hand, it obviously makes the work more purposeful. At the same time, it shifts it from being a special effort to being consistent and mainstreamed. And this is where impactful change is seen, according to among other things experiences from Swedish companies.