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Our boundaries have shifted

Seven percent of female financial employees have experienced unwanted sexual attention at work over the last three years, according to a new study from Finansforbundet (Financial Services Union Denmark). Our boundaries for what is acceptable have shifted permanently, believes business psychologist Louise Dinesen. The Vice-President of Finansforbundet, Michael Budolfsen, encourages the initiation of dialogue concerning respect for personal boundaries

28. Jan 2021
12 min

“The manager was high up in the system; I would lose the case.”

That was the realisation of one woman among the nearly 1,800 members who participated in a study on unwanted sexual attention, which Finansforbundet carried out in December.
In this study, four percent – consisting of as much as seven percent of women and one percent of men – report that they experienced unwanted sexual attention at work within the last three years.
“Four percent is too high, and so was two percent,” says Vice-President of Finansforbundet, Michael Budolfsen, referring to the results of a similar study that Finansforbundet carried out nearly three years ago.
However, this is does not necessarily mean that the number of unwanted cases of sexual attention have doubled because the questions in the two studies are not entirely comparable.
At the same time, over half of the respondents in the new study admit that the ongoing public debate has shifted their boundaries to some degree or another.
“It is a good sign that the boundaries have shifted. It shows that many people have thought about it and concluded that some of the things they experienced were actually not acceptable. This is a good basis for doing something about it,” assesses Michael Budolfsen.

Business psychologist Louise Dinesen agrees. She is the head psychologist at the consultancy company Hartmanns, and she is currently busy with helping companies and organisations handle and prevent sexism.
“We are contacted frequently by companies and organisations that want a through check. They no longer want to accept the sort of things that women in particular used to have to live with – and it is no longer as shameful to step forward. I think the ongoing societal debate will leave a lasting mark on corporate culture.”

Ever fifth person does not say no

The new study from Finansforbundet shows that both men and women predominantly say no, directly or indirectly, to unwanted sexual attention. In a third of the cases, the men also look for a new job, while very few women do the same.
However, in almost one fifth of the cases, neither the men nor women say no.
Some explain that they did not consider it to be very important, that they wanted to put it behind them, and that nothing physical took place. Others gave up from the onset because it was a manager – so they were afraid that it would put them in a bad light in the company, they thought they would lose the case or they did not dare.
Perhaps seniority is also a factor in the perceived opportunities to act. Certainly, young people under 35 experience unwanted attention far more frequently. As much as 16 percent of the young temporary employees have experienced it, and 10 percent of the young permanently employed.
As one writes:
“I did not feel as though I was in a position where I could permit myself to say anything out of fear of losing my job.”
Another states:
“They held a higher position than I did, and I did not want to deal with the uncertainty of the consequences. So I only told family and friends.”
This was despite the fact that all the companies had whistleblower schemes, zero-tolerance and so on. However, the effect is poor if it is not incorporated into the day-to-day life of the company, states the head psychologist.
“If everyone followed the law, jails would be superfluous... It is not enough to just have a policy. You also need to talk about it, it should be active, for example in connection with new employment or when someone switches to a new section. And, as an employee, you should feel as though it is something that both management and colleagues abide by. You need to see it all around you.”

Do we have a policy?

According to the study, doing something about this, particularly in the financial sector, is very important since as much as every third person does not know if the workplace even has a policy in this area. Finansforbundet would like to help by making it more clear to the employees, according to Michael Budolfsen.
“Even though it is the employer’s responsibility, we would very much like to help them improve and take more responsibility. It is a very important place to start. Therefore, this is one reason why, in collaboration with Finanssektorens Arbejdsgiverforening (the Danish Employers’ Association for the Financial Sector) and Forsikringsforbundet (Financial Services Union Denmark), we have prepared 10 good tips on preventing sexual harassment” (see box, the editor).
The Vice-President also noticed that in the debate there have been several women who felt exposed to sexism, yet they completed the mandatory workplace risk assessment (WRA) without mentioning it.
People exposed to unwanted sexual attention generally feel far less secure at work.
“It is important that we talk about our boundaries and what is OK, and that it is OK to say no to something. Many people are afraid that we will lose something, that we can no longer have fun together – but the way I see it, we will not lose anything. It is about establishing a dialogue on respecting each other’s boundaries.”

Difficult conversation

For the same reason, Finansforbundet is working on developing a dialogue game, so that everyone will have an easier time talking about boundaries. Several of the responses in Finansforbundet’s study on unwanted sexual attention show that it is not easy:
“I previously tried to gently say no, but it just escalated the problem. I was excluded from the community and received nasty comments that I was prudish and boring. I was blamed for ruining the good atmosphere and for being an obstacle to having a fun place of work. I never want to experience that again.”
Others did not want to come across as sensitive or thought that it was not worth paying the price of saying no – that it would just lead to more problems.
Louise Dinesen is well aware that it is difficult to talk about boundaries at work.
“We are not used to talking about sexual matters at work. However, when a case comes up, the reaction is often: We long since suspected it, so why didn’t we intervene or why did we continue with it?”
The head psychologist explains that the so-called spectator effect is at play.
“When we experience a problem in a social context, we generally hesitate. Research has shown that the more people are gathered and experience the same thing as spectators, the longer time passes before someone does something. If there are people of authority present, such as managers, we generally believe that they are the ones who should do something.”
She explains that it is not about the individual not wanting to help, but rather about being uncertain about the seriousness of what they are witnessing.
“Other considerations include: If I speak up, will I also be affected by the repercussions? People get scared of intervening and being excluded because it may lead to ridicule or being labelled as a complainer or someone who looks for problems.”

Female managers cross the line

Among those that felt that their boundaries were exceeded, half of both men and women found that their colleagues were to blame. Every fifth of the women who experienced unwanted sexual advances did so from customers – none of the men experienced the same.
On the other hand, both sexes had experienced managers acting in a sexually-inappropriate way. About every third experience was associated with managers. Even though the actual numbers of such cases involve far more male managers than female managers, it is still worth noting, according to Michael Budolfsen.
“We need to look at the management culture in this context, and both female and male managers need to consider: Am I doing something that could be perceived as offensive by the employees?”
Lotte Moefelt and Christina Hierwagen are among those that would have wanted their male managers to ask themselves that question. For many years, they worked at Nykredit, and they experienced sexism when they got a new manager. In November, they chose to step forward in Magasinet Finans and tell their story in the hope that it would stop the culture that permitted sexism and tyranny.
The two women subsequently received massive support from a number of previous colleagues. They thanked them for their courage and at times added their own stories of sexism on the part of the manager – and they wondered why it had been allowed to persist as long as it did. The man left Nykredit following a “mutual agreement” in connection with the publication of the story.
Michael Budolfsen believes that one should generally consider how cases on sexism are handled in the company and at work.
“If you stole from the till, it traditionally meant being fired instantly. What if you grope someone’s thigh? It is worth considering even if there are of course different degrees of unwanted sexual attention.”

Sexism thrives in unrest

But how does a culture that ignores sexism come to be? There is no simple answer to this, according to Louise Dinesen.
“At some types of workplaces, it is deeply rooted; think for example of the very visible example with calendars of naked women, usually at male-dominated workplaces like workshops. Previously, it was just something you had to live with. However, that attitude is not viable any more.”
The more subtle sexism, for example in the financial sector, may also similarly be a remnant of the past, but it can also come about as a subculture in a section or in conjunction with major changes, she explains.
It could be when a new top manager is hired and brings a team of managers along from his previous place of work.
“Sexism comes about more easily in connection with major changes in an organisation. We know this from research because norms and values are displaced and the employees position themselves. At the same time, changes can lead to employees keeping a somewhat lower profile in relation to what could stir up trouble – such as complaints about managers,” says Louise Dinesen.

Men in subcultures

Every 10th person in the study responded that, in their work life, they acted in a way that they could have subsequently regarded as being perceived as a sexual advance. Four percent of women feel the same way.
One participant in the study wrote:
“The discourse is that only the male gender is guilty of offences. The reality is quite different. I have repeatedly during my career experienced offensive sexual conduct on the part of female colleagues. It just isn’t something you talk about as a man because then you come across as sensitive.”
Another man states:
“Women refer to it as being offended. As a man I just think it was embarrassing.”
Head psychologist Louise Dinesen says that men sometimes start forming subcultures because they are tired of the debate.
“Men can have a hard time figuring it out. They can feel that anything they say is wrong. It can result in them withdrawing into subcultures at the workplace, and no good comes of that. We have to talk about it together.”
Even though, as mentioned initially, Louise Dinesen is busy helping companies to prevent sexual harassment, there are many places where they do not want to put their problems into words.
“Many fear that they will suddenly end up with a case and be on the front pages, so they do not want to talk about sexual harassment. However, in the end, it is about well-being, so you can also approach the subject that way,” says the psychologist.
When something is done about it in a company, a lot of other good things happen as well, she promises.
“Stress and offensive behaviour follow the same patterns and avenues, so making an effort will have a positive effect on the overall psychosocial work environment. When something is done about sexual harassment, it has widespread effect"

Ten tips on preventing and handling sexual harassment

Make it clear from the management’s side that sexual harassment is unacceptable.

• Prepare clear guidelines for how sexual harassment is to be prevented.

• Prepare an action plan with formal guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment.

• Establish a channel for complaints; employees need to know where they can go.

• Focus on relevant target groups, for example new employees.

• Collaborate on the task; close cooperation between management and employee representatives is important.

• Maintain focus on prevention and handling of sexual harassment.

• Learn from episodes; look back and discuss them.

• Say no right away; people have different boundaries.

• Use dialogue as a tool; there is a certain taboo around sexual harassment, so discuss proper conduct and tone.

The tips were prepared by Finansforbundet, Forsikringsforbundet and Finanssektorens Arbejdsgiverforening.

Numbers for the agenda:

7 percent of women and 1 percent of men have experienced unwanted sexual attention at work in the financial sector over the last 3 years

8 out of 10 of the men who experienced unwanted sexual attention experience it in the form of physical touching.

5 out of 10 of the women who experienced unwanted sexual attention experience it in the form of physical touching.

8 out of 10 of the women who experienced unwanted sexual attention experience it in the form of obscenities.

Every 3rd man experiences unwanted sexual attention in the form of obscenities.

Young people under 35 most often experience unwanted sexual attention.

10 percent of the permanently employed young persons experience unwanted sexual attention.

16 percent of the temporarily employed young persons experience unwanted sexual attention.

Source: Finansforbundet’s member survey on unwanted sexual attention, December 2020.

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