#MeToo movement now being used to focus on sexism at Danish universities

689 researchers across the country’s universities have signed an open letter confirming that they have experienced or witnessed sexually offensive behaviour within academia. Associate Professor Mie Plotnikof, from the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, is one of the people who has taken the initiative to collect the signatures. Here she discusses the aim of the initiative and what she hopes will come of it.

[Translate to English:] Mie Plotnikof forsker i velfærdsstyring og -organisation inden for uddannelsesfeltet. Hun er ansat på DPU - Danmarks institut for Pædagogik og Uddannelse i Emdrup. Foto: AU Foto

Mie Plotnikof, who is one of the people behind the initiative, explains that the idea started as a result of the sexual harassment cases that have been exposed in the media industry, in politics and in the healthcare sector, after TV presenter Sofie Linde put the spotlight on sexism in the workplace at the ZULU Comedy Gala 2020. 

”We have discussed this topic for many years in academia. But what really motivated us to take this initiative now to sign an open letter is the momentum generated by other sexual harassment cases that are currently ongoing within other sectors and industries. Because of these, it’s time to revisit the discussion within academia – to highlight that the problem of sexism also permeates our own sector.” 

The email sent out to researchers encouraging them to sign the open letter doesn’t only place importance on bringing women’s experiences of offensive behaviour in work contexts to light.  As stated in the email:

”We understand sexism as a broad term and call for people to report stories of both sexual and gender discrimination. In addition, intersectional experiences are also of great importance because often an unwanted experience (including sexual harassment, discrimination or/and offensive behaviour) is exacerbated if the person experiencing this is part of a minority group.”

But in the following, Mie Plotnikof has been asked to specifically focus on offensive behaviour towards women in academia. 

Sexism? Racism? Yes – But not in our backyard!

Firstly, Mie Plotnikof emphasises that because the prevailing consensus in Denmark is that we have gender equality, if someone experiences gender inequality or disagrees with this discourse in general, it’s very difficult to have an objective discussion. 

”We believe that we are living in a welfare society where we have gender equality – and not just at policy level, but actually in practice. And by the way, the same is true for racism. So when someone tells us that they’ve been a victim of sexism or racism, we have a tendency to reject these claims. We tell ourselves that this can’t be true. It’s almost as if we need to be victims ourselves before we can believe that sexism and racism actually exist in this country.”

Bertel Haarder is a good example 

According to Mie Plotnikof, the same mechanism applies to offensive behaviour in the workplace and this is one of the issues that she would like to create more awareness around in academia. 

“We need to acknowledge that we often find it difficult to believe others if their experiences are foreign to us. In this context, Bertel Haarder is a good example. He is a man in a position of power, so he has most likely never been a victim of offensive behaviour. So he immediately dismissed the idea that sexism is alive and well in the Danish Parliament.

As has emerged from the many reports published on sexism in the workplace, which women in different industries have discussed in the media in recent weeks, it is typically young women who are subject to sexual harassment. And it’s older men who are doing the harassing. Mie Plotnikof states that it’s most often men in positions of power who subject others to harassment in academia. 

“As a result, it’s difficult to speak out, because you’re dependent on their goodwill to further your career.”

I understand what you are saying, but I don’t really like the fact that you’re portraying women as victims. That we can’t or won’t say no to a man whose behaviour is considered harassment. 

“I don’t know all that much about your industry, but the power hierarchy in the world of academia makes it very difficult to speak truth to power. When you’re a PhD student or research assistant, you are relying on those in positions above you – they will assess your work or review your application. These are the people who employ you on a fixed-term contract or who might hopefully employ you in the future on a permanent contract.”

I just think the word courage seems to be missing when we’re discussing sexual harassment of women in academia. We almost only hear about what women will risk if they speak up against sexism. But it takes courage to bring about change. 

”Yes, but we’re talking about junior female researchers on limited-term contracts, who risk being excluded from their communities, academic contexts, funding applications, academic publications – all the merits that those in academia rely on – if they report the behaviour of a person higher up than themselves. Including the risk of missing out on any possibility of having a career within academia, because it is almost always the case that women in academia belong to the precariat until their mid-30s, at which point they might secure their first permanent position.” 

Mie Plotnikof doesn’t believe that women in academia lack courage to stand up to sexism.  

”I’ve heard of many examples of women standing up to sexism. But unfortunately also examples of women who were punished afterwards for their courage. For example, they received a lot of criticism or have been totally excluded from various work projects including publications, teaching and funding applications. And there are also women who have ended up leaving academia as a result. I don’t think that the option of leaving is a good strategy and certainly not from a socio-economic perspective.”

”There are also the more collegial strategies, where women warn other women so that they don’t end up in situations where they are at a high risk of being sexually harassed. There have been many times where I’ve been told who best to avoid sitting beside at a conference. And I’ve also warned other women myself.” 

Stand tall – and let down your hair, woman

Mie Plotnikof has another suggestion for how women can assert themselves against offensive behaviour: 

”We need to rise up against the convention in academia that femininity can be equated with being frivolous or unscientific; or if a woman walks around in high-heels, that she’s just a piece of eye candy. And the same goes for if she has long, blond hair or is obviously pregnant. We need to speak out against all forms of what I call ‘micro-aggressions’, which happen when women are judged based on their appearance in professional contexts.”

It’s not going to be an easy fight, acknowledges Mie Plotnikof. She herself has toned down her femininity to avoid any unwanted attention.

”In certain situations I will definitely wear a long jacket to cover my behind – and it’s not because I can’t take a compliment from my colleagues. But if you are consistently being judged by how you look, in the long run it can be difficult to just brush these critical comments aside.”

Let’s focus on the subject matter...

Mie Plotnikof is also very aware from previous experience of how she should dress for teaching. 

There was an example where one day I was writing on the board and someone shouted ‘nice ass!’. I turned around to see 60–70 students sitting there laughing.”

How did you deal with that?

”I suggested that we just focus on the subject matter.” 

With regard to more structured measures to rise up against sexism in academia, Mie Plotnikof suggests to look again at the established formalised procedures for how offensive behaviour is dealt with at the universities. She suggests, for example, to appoint an independent committee which, like the Research Practice Committee, would operate outside of the familiar managerial structure at the university. 

“We shouldn’t appoint yet another independent committee which would look at policies currently in place. Rather, we should use our energy to rethink and formalise more appropriate procedures at management level and in relation to HR. And in terms of setting up a body where you can go to discuss matters confidentially without fear of reprisals.

Mie Plotnikof adds:

”I don’t think that this is going to be easy. And the group of us who started the initiative for change doesn’t have a bag of quick fixes. But the fact that we can have this discussion within academia is a really big step towards standing up against the sexist culture.”

Translated by Marian Flanagan