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Norwegian researchers' deep-dive into male power structures

Norwegian researchers' deep-dive into male power structures

| Text: Björn Lindahl

It started with the question of whether female conscripts are more accepted by male ones if they sleep in the same room. It ended with disclosures of sexual harassment during police training in Norway. Dag Ellingsen led a research project funded by NordForsk which in more ways than one showed the benefits of Nordic research cooperation.

“It was a big research project with a 9.5 million Norwegian kroner budget (€95,000), numerous researchers from four countries and several types of research being performed. We had historians, ethnologists, sociologists and political scientists. It went really well. I didn’t lose a single night’s sleep over that research programme,” says Dag Ellingsen, a researcher at Norway’s Work Research Institute at Oslo Metropolitan University and professor at the Norwegian Police University College.

Together with Ulla-Britt Lilleaas from the University of Oslo, he had been asked by the Norwegian armed forces to look into why so many of the women who had joined the forces quit. 

“There were many reasons why. But one was that the women felt almost as if they were unwanted by some of the men in the forces. 

Positive find

“We spent three years on this, and got a lot of attention for what in reality was a positive find – that things went better when male and female conscripts shared rooms.” 

Swedish, Danish and Finnish researchers who were interested in similar issues got in touch with Ellingsen and Lilleaas.

“We had already met several times – in Sigtuna, Stockholm and Aalborg. So we already knew each other when NordForsk announced the research programme on “National security and shared Nordic values”.   

“We defined gender equality and diversity as part of what it meant to be Nordic and built our project around that. The fact that we already knew each other was a big advantage. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to do a similar project so that you don’t end up with people you have never seen before, who might have their own hobbyhorse or who fail to deliver as agreed.”

Applications for NordForsk funding first go to an international group of experts. They judge the research projects according to their scientific worth and whether they bring something new to the table, whether the ethics have been considered and whether the researchers can demonstrate a knowledge of what has already been done within that area of research.

Highest possible score  

Dag Ellingsen was the project leader. The application was rated a 7, the highest possible score. It was then sent to a programme committee comprised of representatives from all of the research councils that were providing funding to the national security programme, as well as representatives from NordForsk and the Nordic Council of Ministers. 

The programme committee decides what research should be given funding, and also considers whether it provides added value to a Nordic perspective. 

“The wording of the research programme was just open enough. They wanted a certain angle, so we couldn’t do whatever we wanted, but we did enjoy considerable freedom within that framework.”

That suited Dag Ellingsen, who describes the research group’s methodology as “starting in one place and following the arrows that point upwards and outwards”. 


The two Norwegian researchers had already been working on getting a new research project about the Norwegian police force off the ground. Ellingsen had heard that female police were questioning parts of the training of personnel for what is called Utrykningsenheten (the emergency unit), which is called upon to handle particularly serious situations. 

“We had tried to secure funding first from the Western police district and then from the National Police Directorate, but without success. NordForsk, however, were very flexible and said “sure, you can do research on this as well”.”

In the beginning, sexual harassment was not something the two Norwegian researchers were particularly interested in.

“Our starting point was what is known as homosociality, which in this case was how men seek each other out in order to confirm that they are the best in this particular area. Women can take part, but it must be on the men’s conditions and it is they who define what good police work looks like.

“We found homosociality in the shape of an existing, informal group within the police force in Western police district which was known as “Gutteklubben Grei” (the good boys’ club). The group set the standard for how to work in an emergency unit.

Sexual harassment

“But gradually we started hearing stories of sexual harassment in the shape of comments, humour or whatever you want to call it. Some older men also misused their position with female students who were on workplace training, and an event organised by the Norwegian Police University College referred to something called “knulletorsdag” (shagging Thursday).” Much of this pointed away form the Western police district and away from the emergency unit.  

Such juicy details naturally drew a lot of attention in Norway when the research was presented, and the researchers came in for criticism from both the police and other researchers in this field.

“We assured the quality of all our findings were this was possible. We have transcribed more or less all the interviews we did, and the ones we didn’t record were written up within ten minutes. So we know very well what people have and haven’t said.  

“But we have a duty to remain totally loyal to our informants, who we promised anonymity. We can also not argue against them. We more or less discovered shagging Thursday by accident. It was a small phenomenon but a significant one which was not acceptable.” 

Because the research was part of a larger Nordic project, the findings could also be put into a bigger context. A common thread was the way in which female conscripts were constantly exposed to coarse, sexualised humour. One of the Danish researchers, the ethnologist Beate Sløk-Andersen, had herself been a conscript and used that experience in her research. 

"Just a joke"

Together with Dag Ellingsen and Ulla-Britt Lilleaas, she published an article in a science magazine on gender research, describing the phenomena thus:

“You could discuss to which extent the use of humour is a conscious tool or “just a joke”, but the result is that some people must put up with more than they feel comfortable with, and some are exposed to ridicule and harassment. Laughing at other people’s jokes, or even being able to make a joke that is appreciated, can be a sign that you are part of the group. Who, then, wants to be a “killjoy” by speaking up?”

“The humour is very similar in Denmark and Norway. When it comes to the crudest humour, it is as if the men have been looking at the same websites.”

Dag Ellingsen says that the Nordic comparisons were very informative, including when it comes to how the four countries have solved the issue of gender-neutral rooms for conscripts.

“You could say that Norway and Sweden have experimented the most. The Danes have more or less followed their lead, but conscription is much shorter there and conscripts are less isolated and in close proximity to each other compared to those who are in Northern Norway or onboard a vessel. Finland introduced shared rooms only just recently.”  

Mixed rooms

There is something genuinely Nordic with conscripts of both genders sleeping in the same room, even if it is voluntary for both the men and the women, believes Dag Ellingsen.

“We have tried explaining this “mixed rooms” solutions at international conferences in the USA. But they just look at us funny and say “Good luck with your social experiment”. A French senator visiting Norway wanted to study how you get more women into the armed forces. Our shared rooms concept was completely beyond her comprehension. 

“She wanted to know whether “Norwegian men have different hormones to French men? Is there something wrong with them or is something up with the food?” she asked. I am convinced that had we tried to do an EU project based on this research, we would end up looking at each other across a chasm of different understandings of reality.”


With these controversial findings and research topics, did anyone from NordForsk at any time react?

“I have a lot of time for NordForsk’s flexibility when it comes to changes to topics during the course of the project. There were changes to the research team too. Nothing major, but this did not cause problems either. Because of the pandemic we were also allowed to move money from the travel and accommodation budgets to salaries. We got a science assistant towards the end of the project, which was extremely valuable. 

“There is always a balance to be struck. I am used to applied research where you have a client who often follows the project very closely and in some instances nearly gives orders. Then you have clients who are very open, like the Norwegian Ministry of Defence. When it comes to NordForsk, I could have wanted even closer professional contact, but the pandemic must take some of the blame here,” says Dag Ellingsen.

Those who participated in the research project

Dag Ellingsen
Ulla-Britt Lilleaas
Dag Ellingsen
Alma Persson
Fia Sundevall
Anders Ahlbâck
Inger Skjelsbæk
Michael Kimmel
Beate Sløk-Andersen
Johanna Hjertquist

Read more about the research project.

Read Nordforsk's article about the project.


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