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‘The Idea of Denmark as a Gender Paradise Is a Myth.’ #MeToo Finally Came to Denmark—And the Reckoning Is Only Just Beginning

12 minute read

In hindsight, it seems clear that Sofie Linde intended to make an impact. As the host of a comedy awards ceremony in late August, the Danish television presenter began her monologue by noting she was only the second woman in history to host the annual show, and then lifted her dress to expose her belly and confirm her pregnancy. But that provocation was minor in comparison to what came next: Linde revealed that, early in her career, a “big gun” at the state network where she had begun working, threatened to destroy her career if she did not perform oral sex on him.

And with that, a maelstrom was released in Denmark. The Scandinavian country, long held up as a leading example of gender equality—supposedly all income parity and generous parental leave—largely avoided the kinds of recriminations and repercussions that brought down the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Louis C.K. when the #MeToo movement first erupted in the U.S. and elsewhere in 2017. Or at least it had until late August, when Linde’s revelation set off a series of shock waves that have since reached the highest levels of power in Denmark—and haven’t stopped rippling.

What has convulsed the nation is not only the identities of those implicated, which include political leaders and prominent media personalities, but simply that it is happening at all. “One of the reasons why we haven’t really seen this before is that many people said to themselves, well, we are an equal society, so therefore we don’t have these problems,” says former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. “But the idea of Denmark as a gender paradise is a myth. We’re good, but we’re not that good.”

Read More: Denmark Is Supposed to Be a Land of Gender Equality. That’s Why I Speak Out About My Rape

She should know. As Denmark’s first female prime minister (she held the office from 2011 to 2015), Thorning-Schmidt’s own professional trajectory is itself evidence of the nation’s commitment to equality. Yet the woman who broke the Danish government’s glass ceiling has also experienced firsthand the latent sexism that Denmark has long failed to acknowledge—everything from the media’s fixation on her appearance to the kind of harassment that has recently toppled some of her former colleagues. And as she herself acknowledged in an Instagram post in September, although she is proud of her own leadership in some cases, there are others where she laments “having been part of a masculine culture” that may not always have been welcoming to others of her own gender.

Now that the country’s attention has been belatedly but emphatically drawn to the harassment in its midst, Thorning-Schmidt, 53, has a unique perspective on what took so long—and is cheering the progress of Denmark’s #MeToo. “If bad behavior doesn’t have a consequence, then it becomes a lesson to anyone who wants to behave badly that they can just carry on with impunity. So I think that there comes a time where enough is enough,” she told TIME in a recent interview.

International Women's Day Marches In Europe
Demonstrators hold signs and march during a rally on International Women's Day from Frue Plads to Blagards Plads in the Norrebrogade neighborhood of Copenhagen, Denmark, on Friday, March 8, 2019.Freya Ingrid Morales—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Although Denmark routinely ranks high globally for gender equality, it doesn’t always live up to its reputation. Especially in comparison to other Nordic countries, Denmark falls behind in key areas that range from female representation on boards and in parliament, to the percentage of citizens who consider themselves feminist. (Only one in six according to a 2019 YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project poll.)

That may help explain why, in 2017, #MeToo found little traction in Denmark. In its most prominent case, nine women who worked at the prominent film studio Zentropa accused producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen of harassment, but following an investigation, he returned to work with only a promise to “stop slapping women’s asses.” The same YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project found two fifths of Danes had an unfavorable view of the #MeToo movement, in part because they worried it would negatively affect relations between the sexes.

All that changed with Linde’s disclosure. In the wake of it, thousands of women in several Danish industries, including media, academia, and—as of last week—the trade unions, signed public letters saying they too had experienced sexual harassment and abuse. By early October, the movement had spread to the political sphere: both Morten Østergård, leader of the Social Liberal party and Frank Jensen, the mayor of Copenhagen, resigned after multiple women came forward to say that the men had touched them inappropriately. There was also a revival of outrage against the current foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, who, when he was 34 and an invited speaker at a 2008 event for Social Democrat youth, had sex with a 15-year-old attendee. Although Danish law puts the age of consent at 15, the power differential between the two remains problematic for many Danes, and Kofod apologized again this year when the incident was revived.

“When you look at why this is happening now, it’s thanks to these young women, who have decided that enough is enough,” says Thorning-Schmidt. “Like Sofie Linde, they have a platform now, and they decided to use it for something bigger. It took one person to tell a very strong story about what happened to her when she was only 18, and that meant that other women felt they could come forward as well.”

A picture taken on Aug. 19, 2020 shows Danish TV host Sofie Linde posing for a photographer in Copenhagen.Liselotte Sabroe—Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

That represents a big change from even a decade ago. Thorning-Schmidt was head of the Social Democrat party at the time of the Kofod case, and in response to the incident, stripped him of his responsibilities and demanded he apologize. “It was quite unusual back then, because all these cases were often hidden away and no one talked about them,” she recalls. “This one was quite significant because it was talked about, and he did have to apologize in a very public way. I was actually criticized for being too harsh, including by women.”

The irony that some Danes are now questioning why the Social Democrats didn’t do more then isn’t lost on her. She rejects the idea, put forward by some, like journalist Ditte Giese, that there is a generational difference in support for the present movement, noting that in her more recent capacity as CEO of Save the Children International, she quickly fired employees who were guilty of sexual misconduct. But she recognizes that the definition of what counts as harassment—and what both society and she herself is prepared to do about it—has changed. “My generation and women before, we had to get more or less permission just to be in the political arena,” she says. “So sometimes we overlooked things that younger women today are not willing to. They’re not just accepting permission to be there. They’re also saying we want to be there on equal terms, and we want to be able to go to work in a way that feels safe.”

Although she says she has experienced a good deal of sexual harassment earlier in her work life, most of it happened in her first jobs (she worked at a bar and a supermarket) and before she entered politics. At the age of just 25, she started as head of the Social Democrat delegation to the European Parliament—and she believes that leadership position and the ones that followed inoculated her from being the object of much misconduct. “One thing we know about men who harass women is that they don’t go for the person who is at the top of the hierarchy. They never remember anything the day after. But even when they’re very intoxicated, they still understand hierarchy,” she quips.

One major exception occurred when Thorning-Schmidt was a member of the European Parliament, a position she held from 1999-2004. At an embassy dinner, a guest reached under the table and slid his hand onto her knee. “I was angry and insulted, but I didn’t complain,” she says. “Back then, you just moved the hand.”

Read More: The Silence Breakers are TIME’s Person of the Year 2017

But Danes hardly need to look that far back to find evidence of high-level harassment that was ignored or concealed. When he resigned on Oct. 19, former Copenhagen mayor Frank Jensen, who was also the deputy chair of Social Democrats, told the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, “I’m terribly sorry to the women I’ve offended in my 30 years in politics,”; several of the accusations dated to a 2011 Christmas party. The incident that brought down Social Liberal leader Østergård in early October occurred the same year. And Mads Aagaard Danielsen, a journalist and radio host at the national broadcaster, was only fired in October despite reports in 2019 of him harassing multiple women and threatening male journalists at another station in incidents said to date as far back as 2015. (Danielson has apologized for his actions.)

Denmark’s belief in its own commitment to equality helps explain why those incidents never received much attention before now, but so too does Danish culture. Along with egalitarianism, Danes value highly what they call ‘frisind’—a kind of free-thinking that, as illustrated by the publication of the Mohammed cartoons case, refuses to be confined by others’ sensibilities. “As Danes we’re very scared of being put into boxes where we have to be politically correct,” Thorning-Schmidt says. “We want to have our irony, our sarcasm, we want to have fun in the workplace. And that’s part of how we are with each other, which I totally recognized in myself as well. If you’re scared of being boxed into something which is boring and politically correct, then as a society you kind of resist that conversation a bit.”

They’re not resisting anymore. Now that some offenses have come to light, Denmark finds itself grappling with some of the same questions—is there a statute of limitations on misconduct? Should perpetrators be ‘canceled’?—that have convulsed other countries. But perhaps no question has elicited more debate than the question of how and where misconduct should be revealed. Linde’s own refusal to name her harasser—she preferred, she said to keep the focus on the systemic nature of the issue—prompted an ongoing controversy, as has former mayor Jensen’s lament in an interview with the newspaper Berlingske, that, although he has apologized for his actions and has not been accused of any crime, he has nonetheless been “convicted by the people’s court.” Although current prime minister Mette Frederiksen stated that the allegations had revealed grave failings within her own party, and promised to address them, she also said she thought it important that future cases be handled “professionally–for example under the auspices of a legal inquiry” and posted on Facebook that “it should not be the media’s presentation that decides the outcome of a case.”

But Thorning-Schmidt says she understands why Linde and others have chosen to go public with their stories. “If someone has over, say 30 years in politics, been harassing a number of women, and the women have complained but it’s had no consequences,” she says, “Then I can understand why they would start revealing who it actually is.” While she was CEO of Save the Children, she learned firsthand how silence—especially in the form of non-disclosure agreements—enabled misconduct to continue, with some known harassers simply getting pushed on to the next job. “I strongly believe that there has to be some outing of these people. It’s only when these things become public, that they seem to stop.”

With more revelations likely—prime minister Frederiksen herself said she thought more cases would emerge in the near future—Thorning-Schmidt believes a broader change is underway, one that may well address the other forms of sexism that Denmark has thus far failed to address. “If you have a culture that allows sexual harassment, you also often have a culture that allows sexism in the workplace. So hopefully, this shift in paradigm will not stop with harassment, but will move on to those other forms of inequality in the labor market as well.”

Those include pay that, although more equitable than most other countries, is still unequal (in 2019 women earned just over 87 cents for every dollar earned by men), the percentage of women serving on corporate boards (19%), and the lack of women in political leadership at the local level (“I think we have more mayors named Erik than we do female mayors,” she says). Thorning-Schmidt herself may help rectify the latter; her name is being floated as a possible candidate to replace Frank Jensen in Copenhagen’s mayoral election next year.

Whether that happens or not, it seems clear that the upheaval Sofie Linde unleashed will continue. On Monday, Denmark’s National Association of Local Authorities released the results of a survey that shows roughly a fifth of all women in local politics have experienced sexual harassment in some form or another. “Clearly,” Thorning-Schmidt says, “We still have a lot to do.”

Correction, Nov. 3

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt signed a letter in support of the #MeToo movement. She did not, but she supports the movement.

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