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Anna Söderbäck: #metoo shows a need for a new type of leadership

Anna Söderbäck: #metoo shows a need for a new type of leadership

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo: Johan Westin, Konstnärsnämden

#metoo has spread like wildfire across the Nordic region. In Sweden, 65 different trades gathered their stories under different banners. First were the artists with hashtags like #tystnadtagning (silence, filming) and #ViSjungerUt (we’re singing out). Anna Söderbäck also shared her experiences. Now she is calling for a new type of leadership.

Anna Söderbäck is the Secretary General for the Swedish Arts Grants Committee. Their primary task is to provide grants and support to artists and to promote the development of art. But the Committee also keeps an eye on and analyses the artists’ economic and social situation.

She has spent a lifetime working artistically, organisational and politically within the world of art. Still, stories published on Facebook during #ViSjungerUt surpassed her imagination both in numbers and gravity.

As a former international opera singer, Anna Söderbäck has experienced both assault and harassment. 

“Yes, I can say that. This is why I quit as a singer. It cost too much, in the wrong way.”

She has two accounts to illustrate this:

“When I said no to a sexual demand from the head of one of Europe’s largest agencies in Vienna, he tore up the contract I had been given after my audition. The other example is from Sweden. After auditioning at a Swedish opera house, I was told I was the best singer but that my breasts were too small for the role.

“The art world is a very tough trade, especially for women, but also overall. There are very few female leads both in opera and theatre. More women are trained than men, the competition is enormous and there is a lot of focus on age.

“Between graduating from opera school until having my first child, I had many job offers and grants. When I gave birth, I chose to stay at home with my child. Between my two children there was slightly fewer jobs, and after my second child the telephone went quiet.”

A long career

Anna Söderbäck wanted to carry on singing. She decided to continue by organising her own singing career and began producing and staging shows together with colleagues. She particularly remembers the first one: 'Akutföreställningen La mamma’ (The Emergency Show La Mamma), she laughs.

“We were three opera singers in late stage pregnancies who wrote the script, put together the music and played the show up until two weeks before I gave birth. The story is about being pregnant, life as a singer with children and the whole problem of art and family life.

After a while there was more production and less singing. More and more artists wanted her to produce their shows. A big change came when Martin Fröst, the great clarinettist and conductor, wanted her to join him and be the project leader for a major chamber music festival.

“I couldn’t say no.”

Later she engaged in arts politics, and led the Swedish Union for Theatre’s singers’ branch for 10 years before being approached by KLYS, the Swedish Joint Committee for Artistic and Literary Professionals, an umbrella organisation for all trade unions representing artists in Sweden. 

“I spend five years there working nationally and internationally both on a Nordic and an EU level.”

She has taken her own path. After getting involved politically, she was hired as head of culture at Region Uppsala, and six months ago she was offered the job as the Secretary General for the Swedish Arts Grants Committee, a state authority under the Ministry of Culture. Her career trajectory has been steep. Today she thinks it is exciting to be able to use her broad experience: from municipal and regional levels, politically, international and now national levels and the leadership of an overarching art policy. 

“The roles might be somewhat different, but I have been working with the same issues all along.”

A need for more women in leadership

Anna Söderbäck is interested in leadership, which she believes is about trusting employees and giving them the opportunity to participate in decision-making.

“I am an open person,” she says.

When I ask what she means by that, the keyword is 'trust-based management’.

“That is when everyone shares the responsibility. I am responsible at the end of the day, of course.

“I think it is important to lead and manage based on trust, and to be available and to get to know your employees, be present, listen and use the expertise which is there, not believing you know best. Delegate with a mandate.

“I would call it a female leaderships style. It can also be carried out by men. It is about daring to expose your soft side and becoming more inclusive. 

“This is what #metoo is all about. You need an including leadership, and you must include both men and women, assailant and victim, both must get support. No-one should be judged without a crime having been committed. A good society means that we need to include everyone, because there are all kinds of people. Yet leaders must be very clear about what is acceptable.

“You need to dare to address what is happening, to see it, speak up and talk about it. Trust-based leadership also means employees must take responsibility.” 

Also in the Swedish Academy

It is 12 April and the Swedish Academy is in the middle of a crisis. 

“If we’re talking about the Swedish Academy, for instance, you must dare to look at the structures. What is happening right now is that women yet again are forced into silence. No-one is talking about what is happening. They don’t talk to, but try to get rid of Sara Danius. I don’t know whether this is on purpose, but the structures are so strong that the women become silent.  

“We must allow a new kind of leadership to emerge, and we must talk about things. We must allow women to be bosses, not just make up the choir line.

“Since age 30, I have lowered the average age on different music-related boards and made them more female. Men have always been running things. Men have always set the agenda. Men have always made the decisions, who should watch when you speak, who you sit next to, who you exclude and who you include. Things have got better, but it is a slow process. #metoo has sped things up, for better or worse. 

“That is what is so interesting with #metoo,” she says enthusiastically. We all know what it is like to be a woman, but we do not always talk about it, especially when we are in positions of power. We talk woman to woman, privately. But that is what was different with #metoo. The private sphere was lifted into the public sphere on a collective basis.”

This is where the sad story comes. When innocence was stolen. Sad, but something she has managed to turn into a strength.

“I was raped at 14 by an older musician, a trumpet player I had been admiring greatly. He was like a god to me, and he exploited that. I am sure several adults could have stopped it, but nobody did. We have to look at structures. To see when someone is exploiting someone else. You have to see and take responsibility for what you are as an adult. You cannot do that as a 14 year old. You cannot read what is happening. You don’t understand the signals that are being sent out, and you don’t see the signals you yourself send out. 

“What is happening now, is that women are starting to talk to each other. In my network, women have been mentors for the younger ones, because it is the young ones who need support. They are the ones who are vulnerable.

“Me, I carried this with me for six years before telling my mother, and my brother, and was told that this man had violated others. This has taught me that you must talk, be open, listen, support, speak up. In my professional life, since leaving opera school at 30, I have always spoken out. That is why I have never experienced this in my professional life, but I have been a victim and I have put a stop to it.”

If people dare to take what is now happening seriously, it will be a revolution.

Among politicians at Rosenbad

It is 12 April, the day Sara Danius stepped down as permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the first woman to hold that position since the Academy was established in 1786. This is where the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded, and a range of other prizes. The Swedish Academy also carries out important work as one of the pillars of Sweden’s literary universe.  

“I would say that all actions give birth to a reaction, and that is what we are seeing now. That is what I believe is happening in the Swedish Academy: ‘We must get the focus away from all this #metoo business. We cannot let it happen, because it threatens our position of power.’

“I think this is the fear of change. A revolution is in the wings if things go the way it was meant to go. We already see that women are better educated than men, and that girls do better in school than boys. Still men remain in leading positions. If this were to change, it would be a threat to many people. I see it as an opportunity, but you need to get men on your side.”

Anna Söderbäck, in her role as Secretary General for the Swedish Arts Grants Committee, is invited to dinner at Rosenbads Gästsalar, held for Nordic government ministers during their meeting in Stockholm. Ylva Johansson is hosting and has asked Anna Söderbäck to give a talk on #metoo as an introduction to an informal discussion around the table.

The Swedish Arts Grants Committee is responsible for keeping an eye on and analyse artists’ economic and social situation. Anna Söderbäck is at the helm.

“In Sweden, #metoo began among artists. This could have something to do with artists’ special situation,” she says in her talk about the artists’ situation for the Nordic ministers. She also talks openly about how she was stopped on the international stage, put frames what is personal to her in a more general tone about artists’ conditions.

Artists often work alone, are often self-employed, responsible for their own working environment and must negotiate about this with different clients. They are vulnerable. She refers to the report ‘Artists’ working environments’, which says 40 percent of artists most often have no-one to turn to when work becomes difficult – some never have – compared to 15 percent in working life in general. Four percent say they have been victims of sexual harassment in the past year (2016). Most of them are young.

“Exploiting your position of power with young artists who are in a relationship of dependency, or with students who admire a teacher or older colleague, is unacceptable.”

The sexualisation of young women and sometime men in art; be it on stage, in films, dance or music, is so common that we often do not react. We talk about artistic freedom when it really is about unreflecting power structures and improper use of power, and this is exactly what #metoo is about, Anna Söderbäck tells listening ministers.

Her words stimulate a discussion around the tale. When the meeting is over, she is of the impression that there is a will for change:

“I feel all of us take this problem seriously, and that all of the Nordic countries are actively taking action to deal with the problem. Legal changes are afoot in several countries, and it is clear that #metoo in various ways has made an impression in society, but first and foremost in politics.”

There was a clear will to change, and to seriously getting to the core of the problem: The power structures, acknowledged Anna Söderbäck.

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