Opinion: Here’s how we can prevent a backlash to the #MeToo movement in Sweden

New laws are among the methods Sweden should use to continue the #MeToo movement and prevent backlash, former Equal Opportunities Ombudsman Lena Svenaeus writes.

Opinion: Here's how we can prevent a backlash to the #MeToo movement in Sweden
A Swedish law book. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

The wrath of the #MeToo movement is sweeping through occupation after occupation. The frustration – to make an understatement – rests on the memory of degrading events. But it is also to do with how little help and understanding was offered at workplaces, or from the police or prosecutors.

The culture of silence which rules is based on how people are convinced that filing a report often turns into a boomerang which comes back to hurt the person who reported in the first place. The strength in the opposition to treating women equally and respectfully at workplaces should not be underestimated.

So what can prevent a backlash after #metoo? Legislation and collective agreements are some of the tools that need to be developed.

There was a time when sexual harassment ‘didn’t exist’ in Sweden. Yes, in real life it of course existed, but without a name the phenomenon was invisible. It was like that long into the 1980s.

The Equal Opportunities Ombudsman (Jämställdhetsombudsmannen, JämO) demand that protection should be introduced in gender equality laws was met with long, strong resistance. An example:

In an opinion piece published in Dagens Nyheter (DN) on March 26th, 1996 the JämO was accused of “spreading myths about sexual terror” in order to get more money in their pocket. The attack was linked to the creation of a provision in gender equality laws that employers should work to prevent sexual harassment

That this abuse of power was given a name in Swedish (sexuella trakasserier) – a translation of the English sexual harassment – resulted in the positive change of women starting to report sexual harassment. In the cases there was a pattern, reflecting the power structure of workplaces. It was often easy for the employer to move the woman on while the man remained in his position. Power is a key concept in research on sexual harassment.

Legal sociology research shows that laws brought in to remedy structural shortcomings must be backed up with effective supervision and sanctions. If that support is lacking, anomalies are normalised. Think about road traffic and zero tolerance. How would things look without supervision of traffic laws and without road maintenance?

In the area of discrimination there are three protective barriers which have to function if the normalisation of sexual harassment is to cease.

1. Workplace norms

Complaints about sexual harassment must be investigated in a professional way. Preventative work that makes it possible to complain about harassment without the risk of reprisals must exist. Here, employers’ organisations have a major responsibility to communicate knowledge to their members about how standards and guidelines should be formulated.

2. Collective agreements shoud be established on how sexual harassment investigations should be conducted, and the rights and protections which should be observed.

To an extent this exists today in workplace environment laws, but it is not enough. Various parties in the labour market must sit at the negotiation table and work on a collective agreement on sexual harassment. Damages payments for breaking the collective agreement are a powerful sanction which work.

3. The Equality Ombudsman (Diskrimineringsombudsmannen, DO) must take every report seriously, investigate them and through arbitration or the legal system when necessary, attempt to find the right solution for the person who made the report.

As a consequence of inadequate regulation on what the DO should do, the current DO has reorganized its activities away from the investigation of reports, in the direction of working more on information and advocacy. Last year 131 reports of sexual harassment in the workplace and education were made. Only a fraction were investigated by the DO.

Dissatisfaction with how few have been given help by the DO after filing a report has led to a government investigation. In the “Better protection against discrimination” report it was proposed that a new state authority should be created alongside the DO, creating a committee to which discrimination can be reported.

The committee would not be able to hand out sanctions but could propose adequate solutions, and would stick to only written evidence. It would be modelled on the National Board for Consumer Disputes (ARN).

But oral evidence is almost always needed if a discrimination case is to be properly investigated. Imagine if the sexual harassment of the sort that has emerged from the #MeToo movement was reported to the new committee, then guess how many of the cases opened would continue after the accused perpetrator was heard from. The issue is whether it is really reasonable to compare discrimination with consumer complaints like a delayed flight. The proposal for a new committee to tackle reports of discrimination belongs in the bin.

It’s the DO who should give those who have suffered from discrimination the chance of redress. As things stand right now, Sweden is in breach of both EU law and UN guidelines for how an authority of the DO’s kind should work.

Culture and Democracy minister Alice Bah Kuhnke should as soon as possible address the creation of rules in the anti discrimination laws which detail the DO’s duty when it comes to reports of discrimination. The independence of an authority like the DO should be dictated through well thought-through rules for what the authority should do – not through every new boss testing out their own ideas on how the DO’s work on discrimination issues should be carried out.

This is an opinion piece written by legal sociology professor Lena Svenaeus, who was Sweden’s Equal Opportunities Ombudsman between 1994 and 2000. It was translated to English from the original published by Sydsvenskan.

For members


Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.