Widespread harassment revealed in the Norwegian police and army

The people in the picture have no relation to the content of the article. Photo: Egil Ingebritsen / Forsvaret

In an Army base in the north of Norway, researchers Ulla Britt Lilleaas and Dag Ellingsen met a young woman who shared living quarters with a group of young men. She had very little in common with them and described them as “‘gym bros’, only interested in muscles and war”. One day, the leader of the male pack noticed her take a tampon out of her drawer. Later that day, he proclaimed loudly to the other guys: “No wonder she’s grumpy. It’s her bad week.” Some of them laughed. The woman chose not to report the incident. However, she did mention it to a male colleague whose quarters were on the other side of the corridor, and he took it up with a superior officer. The ringleader was summoned to see his commander, and the next day he told “his crew” that a “whore” had grassed him up.

Her story is just one of the multiple examples in the research project Gender Equality, Diversity and Societal Security, based on interviews with members of the armed forces. The researchers soon found out that the offensive language, bullying and sexual harassment in the armed forces were also widespread in the police, the second workplace they studied.

Astonishing and worrying findings

The NordForsk-funded project conducted interviews with staff in different police districts around Norway and found officers using terms like “tampon patrols” and “shag Thursday”. It also uncovered sensational stories of bullying and sexual harassment, mainly of women.

Project manager Dag Ellingsen and the team were taken aback by what they found.

“Our study of the police was supposed to be just a side project while we were studying gender equality in the armed forces. But once we started, it became more and more astonishing – and worrying. We didn’t expect anything like it, and it just kept coming,” he says.

“We were introduced to the concept of ‘the boys’ club’, an inner circle made up exclusively of men. We heard about misogynistic language and men patting women on the butt. The club wasn’t even the worst of it. We also heard about instructors abusing their power in general and flirting with female officers 15–20 years younger.”

Dag Ellingsen.

Criticism from several sides

When the study was launched, the research group encountered stiff resistance.

“We thought it would mostly be an internal police matter, but our findings caused a huge media storm. Some people wanted us to reveal our sources, but probably the most unpleasant and surprising aspect was the way other researchers criticised us in public. It was unreasonable criticism that questioned our results and accused us of having an agenda,” Ellingsen continues.

Following the intense media coverage, the police conducted an internal inquiry and arrived at similar conclusions. Many women contacted the media and told stories similar to those in Gender Equality, Diversity and Societal Security.

The research lead to real change

As a result of the revelations, the police recently introduced new measures to deal with the toxic culture.

“It has been fascinating to be part of something that actually leads to change. This is incredibly important stuff to do with the working environment and safety at work. A bad workplace culture means the quality of the work suffers. The police and the armed forces have a special responsibility. They are role models to many people, so it’s crucial that they lead by example,” says Johanna Hjertquist of OsloMet, a research assistant on the project.

“Sometimes research has little impact on the real world. But in this case, I think there will be less tolerance of sexual harassment in the police and perhaps also the armed forces in the future. But we mustn’t rest on our laurels. An important issue may now be on the agenda, but that doesn’t mean that an end has been put to this toxic culture. The Nordic Region has a reputation as a world leader in gender equality, but this new insight into the work culture in these two male bastions shows that they both lag behind on this parameter,” Dag Ellingsen adds.

Read more about the project.

Read more about NordForsk’s work on societal security.


Marianne Knudsen. Photo: NordForsk

Marianne Knudsen

Senior Communications Adviser