Military still fighting war on harassment

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Norway’s defense establishment has targeted bullying and sexual harassment within the armed forces, and mounted major efforts to shoot down both. A new study released last week, however, shows there’s still a long way to go despite success at recruiting and even showcasing more female officers.

Report targeted bullying and sexual harassment in the military

Norway’s defense forces are keen to attract more women but many recruits, especially young women, still face the most bullying and harassment. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Ingeborg Gloppen Johnsen

When thousands of NATO soldiers arrived in Norway for joint exercises earlier this winter, it was a Norwegian female officer who oversaw how US Marines had to jump into icy water fully clothed, drag themselves soaking wet up onto the ice and learn how to survive the experience. A reporting crew from state broadcaster NRK asked her whether she’d had any trouble exerting her authority amidst so any male soldiers. “Not at all,” she claimed, suggesting it wasn’t even an issue.

The new study, based on a survey conducted by the military’s research unit FFI, indicates she was fortunate. Fully three out or four female soldiers and military students have reported how they’ve experienced sexual harassment. One of three women in basic training has encountered unwanted sexual advances. Around half of all women in the Norwegian military said they’d been sexually harassed, as opposed to 14 percent of the men.

As newspaper Aftenposten editorialized after the report came out, that’s just some of the dismal findings in the study conducted last year. “You clearly have to be thick-skinned to be a woman in the defense forces,” Aftenposten concluded, “especially if you’re young.”

Norway’s defense chief, General Eirik Kristoffersen, listened as Kari Røren Strand of the defense research institute FFI (Forsvars forskningsinstitutt) presented the latest survey findings last week. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Both Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen and Norway’s new Forsvarssjef (Chief of Defense) General Eirik Kristoffersen were disappointed. They had a right to be, noted Aftenposten, since there’s been no lack of top brass addressing the problems of both sexual harassment and bullying in the military. The defense department itself took the initiative to chart and crack down on both a few years ago, and commissioned the first such survey in 2018. They’d expected more progress and better results.

Instead the problems remain. More than 10,000 members of the military responded to the survey. They were asked to chart what kind of bullying and harassment they encountered, the extent of it, who carried it out and when it occurred. They were also asked how much they knew about warning systems already in place, and how they could report unpleasant incidents.

Answers confirmed that bullying and harassment are still widespread, with 11 percent reporting incidents just in the previous six months and that women and the youngest recruits experienced the most bullying. Enlisted women and trainees experienced the most overall (30 percent) while male officers experienced the least (6 percent). The most common forms were personal teasing, being frozen out of groups and work-related bullying, while few (but arguably too many) were subjected to what they described as “threatening or frightening” bullying, some of it physical. Those aged 40 and over listed being excluded by colleagues as the most common form.

Many young Norwegians still seek a career in the military, despite the ongoing problems of bullying and harassment. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Martin Giskegjerde

Fully 22 percent of all respondents reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment at least once or twice during the prior year. That included 63 percent of women under age 30 and 73 percent of all female students. Male civilian employees of the military experienced the least harassment of all (7 percent).

These were discouraging numbers given all the programs put in place to change attitudes, update and publicize systems for reporting such incidents, and train leaders at all levels to recognize and deal with harassment. Norway’s defense department also set up a formal cooperation system with the country’s ombud in charge of promoting equality and battling discrimination.

“The military can be criticized for letting such a culture (of harassment) establish itself, but not for looking another way when things go wrong,” Aftenposten wrote. If anything, the new study simply shows that Defense Chief Kristoffersen has a big job ahead of him. While the overall extent of bullying and sexual harassment was found to have declined since 2018, it remains a major problem for young women.

“Bullying is still a challenge in the defense forces,” stated a defense department press release issued in connection with the study. It shows that entrenched culture isn’t easily changed: “It takes time to change course,” wrote Aftenposten, “not to mention stop it.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund