An Interview with Minister for Equal Opportunities Karen Ellemann

This transcript was taken from a Facebook Live interview conducted by Consul General in New York, Ambassador Anne Dorte Riggelsen and Karen Ellemann, Minister for Fisheries and Equal Opportunities and Minister for Nordic Cooperation.

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#DenmarkInNY Consul General Anne Dorte Riggelsen (L) and Minister for Equal Opportunities Karen Ellemann (R) discuss gender equality, #MeToo, and the future of equal opportunities.

Anne Dorte Riggelsen: Good afternoon, minister. You now me, I know you, but perhaps the audience who may be watching don’t know us. Allow me to go first — I’m Anne Riggelsen, the Consul General of Denmark in New York. And you are perhaps the busiest Danish minister we have, because you are responsible for fisheries, you are responsible for Nordic cooperation and you are responsible for equal opportunities.

You are here in New York because we are busy campaigning for our seat, hopefully, at the human rights committee, but you are also here to do bilateral work.

You did it last night, when you met all the shakers and movers of the Danish New York community, and you are doing it now.

I would love to talk to you about fisheries and I would love to talk to you about Nordic cooperation, but I am passionate to talk to you about equal opportunities. Because there is one theme, which everybody is talking about — not only in the US, but also in Europe and all over the world — and that is the #MeToo movement.

Karen Ellemann: Well, thank you so much for actually having this opportunity to talk about an extremely important topic. For me, personally, I must say, that I think that the number of situations have really surprised me, shocked me. Because it started out in the US, but it went so fast all over every single country.

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Karen Ellemann delivering remarks at the 2018 Nytårskur reception in New York.

In Denmark, again, maybe it started with the film industry, with lots of actors being very open about what experiences they’ve had. And the number of stories, and I mean, I’ve looked into the stories, has not only been a wake-up call, but personally a shock to read what things, what kind of harassment, that mainly women have been exposed to.

ADR: Of course, the #MeToo movement is directed very much against the worst transgressions: sexual harassment. But there is a grey area where we have all been as women and you probably also. So do you have any personal reflections, where you say: “There, if it wasn’t a transgression, then probably something close to it”?

KE: Well, yes and I think in the situation we are in right now, and what I very often experience as minister of this area — somebody would say minister of gender equality; I call it minister of equal opportunities — very often when we have gender subjects, we tend to go into the trenches. We tend to have a very black and white fight, so to say, in each corner. I am very much aware of the different tones in this. And when we talk about sexual harassment, I think the whole #MeToo movement has brought us the extreme stories that need police work, that need justice and that need fair trials. I mean we are a democratic country based on rule of law, so of course, do not put anyone in prison until it’s proven that they’ve done something wrong.

But what about the grey zones as well? In this perspective, it’s extremely important that we pay so much attention to the personal boundaries. And that you are learning: where are my boundaries and how do I signal them? That has to do with the way you are brought up and the way you have confidence and discussing personal issues. Doing it in schools for instantly, with sexual education, which is extremely important.

ADR: Which is normal in Denmark, for our audience here in New York and in the US — that’s for sure. I so agree with you.

#MeToo movement — new concept. Women’s marches — another new concept, and we saw them all over the world, but not in Denmark. Interestingly enough. Because here we are: progressive and avant-garde. Why didn’t women or men, women and men, take to the streets together with so many other countries?

KE: Let me put it straight — don’t get the impression that we don’t have this problem in Denmark — because we do. Yes, I’m aware that we haven’t taken to the streets in pink pussy hats. I think it’s probably, this is my personal view on this one, looking back into history, equal opportunities are part of our DNA. Looking back hundreds years of history, the women’s rights movement was very quickly adopted by the wider society, by the establishment and by the institutions. And right away, that is something that to me may be an explanation, why we tend to have kind of a different, maybe a more laid back culture. Maybe we take the discussion over a cup of coffee instead and don’t take it to the streets.

ADR: I can definitely attest to the fact that this is the history of gender equality and women’s rights in Denmark. It was adopted, it became mainstream as the fastest in Europe, so that’s true.

Drinking coffee — we like to do that, and being laid back, perhaps that is also in our DNA. But you were not laid back, Karen. You took action, didn’t you? You did not just talk, you took action. Perhaps remind our audience — what did you do

KE: Well, because as I said in the beginning, it really hit me, hit the government, the number of situations and we agreed that we cannot just sit back and say “Oh maybe that’s a part of work life.” So we’ve done several things. For instance, when we talk about if you have a trial, are you being fined, do you need to pay a fine for having done these things, damages? And for those kind of payments we have raised the bar, raised the limit.

ADR: So it is more expensive now for a sexual harasser in Denmark to go there.

KE: That is one signal, that’s one initiative. Another initiative is that we are aware, what kind of institutions, what kind of area bear a responsibility. We all do, because this is everyday life. As a government, we have done this together, I have done this together with several ministers. For example the Minister of Labor. Alongside we have contacted companies, giving the good advice: How do we actually put this on the agenda? How do we talk about code of conduct? How do we behave at work? How do we respect each other and read each other’s signals? What is the code of conduct?

ADR: So you mainstreamed the #MeToo movement very quickly, true to our history and said: “This is necessary to do. Let it become a part of our institutional setup.” Interesting.

We don’t know everything in Denmark, even though we may like to think so, we don’t. And we can learn from other countries and definitely from this country as well. When you look at this strong and powerful movement, which has started and probably is not ending anytime soon. What can we in Denmark learn from that? What is the takeaway?

KE: Let’s take away that I have a great respect for the kind of power that lies behind these voices, these women, who took the word, took the floor, set down their foot, and said: “This stops now.” That should be applauded, that should be taken seriously. And that is a lesson learned and that is very inspirational. It takes a lot of courage, no doubt about that. From the women who stood up and said that is unacceptable.

ADR: And said: “This happened to me.”

KE: Exactly. So standing there with the huge courage that it takes to actually be there on the scene — that is a great inspiration. But how do you make it sustainable, how does it actually take root? How does it make sense? Look what is happening. That’s why I’m very proud and happy to live in a country with very strong institutions. Because you need strong institutions to be able to have the whole framework and the whole support about good behavior. Good interaction between human beings. And that for me is the inspiration for making sure that this has not been in vain.

ADR: Strong institutions. Courageous individuals. Let those be the last words from this first Facebook live from 2018. Thank you very much, Karen.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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The Official Medium Blog for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. For all things Danish, #DenmarkInNY.

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