Ahldén is talking about the huge reaction in Sweden to the global #MeToo campaign, a social media hashtag launched to raise awareness of harassment, which has been followed in the Scandinavian country by a series of petitions demanding change within specific industries.
Launched on Tuesday, an appeal titled '#sistabriefen' (the final brief) calling for change within the communication industry, became the latest such call, following statements from women working in law, politics, tech, unions, journalism, dance, sport, construction, and more. Further appeals have drawn attention to assault in Swedish schools, universities, the church, and within the healthcare system.
Ahldén, who helped put together the #sistabriefen appeal, thinks the Swedish tradition of organization is one of the reasons the #MeToo campaign has had such a strong impact in Sweden within such a short amount of time.
“It’s been fascinating to see how different countries have reacted to #MeToo. For example, in France the movement ‘#balancetonporc’ (squeal on your pig) was very focused on the individuals. That’s great, but in Sweden we’ve gone down a more structural route, calling for a change to norms,” she explains.
When the first petitions were published in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, Ahldén says she felt that many people were waiting for similar action within the communication industry. After a few days, another communications professional contacted her on Twitter, and together they set up a Facebook group to bring women in the industry together.
The group was secret, meaning that people could only join if they had been personally invited by other members. But within 24 hours, the number of members had topped 1,000, and it is now over 6,000.
Ahldén's first post was a call for more group administrators, and five women volunteered, none of whom she had known personally.
Then, they asked for women to share their experiences of harassment in the PR and advertising industries, and within days had received over 300 testimonies, some alleging criminal assault while others related the everyday sexism and discrimination within the industry.
“I wasn’t shocked by the volume or viciousness of the testimonials. I’ve been in this business, and other ones, for long enough to know what it’s like,” says Ahldén. “But what I was surprised by was the level of camaraderie, which has truly been exceptional.”
The group, like those in other industries, was set up informally and very quickly; the women acting as administrators have taken on the role alongside full-time jobs. But Ahldén says they were put in touch with the organizers of other such groups quickly, and were able to exchange experiences and advice on things like the best platforms for sharing stories securely and anonymously, or how to collect thousands of signatures.
“It’s been a very humbling experience; there’s an incredible support between all the disciplines — and if people in other countries want to do something similar, we’re all very happy to give tips!” she says.
“We also want to make sure everyone gets as much space as possible. Working in PR, we know we're a privileged group, so having cross-industry communication helps make sure we can help each other instead of stealing anyone's thunder.”
While the precise aims of each appeal have differed slightly, the groups have been able to use their industry-specific expertise to help each other. For example, when some women who had shared stories of harassment in the communication industry faced backlash from employers for speaking out, Ahldén says the women behind the legal industry's appeal were able to help, and in turn her group has helped others with a guide on writing press releases, talking to the media, and answering difficult questions.
When it came to gathering the testimonies, she says the group used a Google Form to use anonymity. Then, Ahldén and the other admins posted these stories in the group, after taking out potentially identifying details. This was partly to avoid accusations of libel, and partly to prevent any of the women from facing repercussions in the industry.
“We decided very early on that we didn’t want to name perpetrators or create a ‘blacklist’ of agencies,” she explains. “I think those things can be really valuable, but that wasn't our aim; we wanted a high volume of testimonies, to create change in the industry.”
These soon flooded in from women working in communication across Sweden, and even some Swedes working abroad.
While many women were happy to have their story heard, Ahldén says there were still many who were afraid to share their experiences, particularly those working in smaller cities.
“Some people were very clear with us as admins that they didn’t dare share information, and we also discouraged some testimonials that were too specific simply due to the risk of being exposed,” she says.
She notes that she has the advantage of being self-employed and owning her own PR agency, which has allowed her to speak out publicly without facing the same repercussions as younger, more junior colleagues. However, she stresses that she is not a spokesperson for the campaign, and doesn't speak for anyone but herself.
The hashtag #sistabriefen sums up the group's aim. Ahldén says the message is “like any brief in advertising: you present a problem and your desired outcome, and you ask the agency how they’re going to address this.”
“That's what we're doing. We want to see agencies be creative, and buyers make demands when they buy services from us, for example not using unpaid workers, providing a minimum level of salary. So many times, I’ve been required to explain in detail my agency’s environmental policy in order for my agency to be considered for an assignment. In a company of five people, that basically means how we deal with our trash and how many of us get the bus to work. I’ve never once in 15 years in the industry been asked what the employment conditions are in my company – what salaries, insurance and pensions we offer.”
She explains that while the PR industry may seem glamorous from the outside, and is more middle-class and privileged than many others, job security is extremely low and competition for permanent roles is fierce. It's also not an industry regulated by unions, which typically ensure fair wages and working conditions for Swedish workers.
“To address this, it’s not just a gender question. The gender issue is there, certainly, but the issue is bigger. Lots of young women don't have employment security, rights, or pensions, which means you don’t raise your hand to speak up for yourself or for others because the cost is too high. So we're targeting the entire ecosystem and trying to change the industry,” she explains.
“Of course it’s about preventing sexual assault and rape in the workplace, but it’s also about shifting a norm.”
To explain why she thinks it’s possible, Ahldén gives a very Swedish analogy. In the past, she points out that it was normal to throw used batteries in normal rubbish bins, whereas now that’s “basically impossible” — everyone takes their batteries to be recycled.
“People often say Sweden is super equal, and wonder what we're complaining about. But we're shouting out partly because we can, because we do have rights here, but also because we still need to — there are areas where we still have a long way to go. And we are shouting in unison, because that's what Swedes do. We get organized.”