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Fighting against prejudice

Fighting against prejudice

| Text: Gwladys Fouché, Photo: Beate Bjercke

In an effort to tackle discrimination at all levels of society, the Norwegian government has appointed the first ever equality and anti-discrimination ombud. The aim is to fight against all types of prejudice, be it on the basis of gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or age.

The first holder of the job is Beate Gangås, 42, a former police officer who most recently headed the national police unit against organised crime. Gangås manages a 26.5m kroner budget and a staff of about 30. Her powers are widespread: she can not only conduct research on discrimination-related issues, but also intervene in individual cases.

For instance, she is currently dealing with a job ad for the Pakistani national airline, recently published in one of Norway 's largest dailies, Aftenposten. 

PIA was looking for female flight attendants and the ad only wanted applications from "talented young girls" who are single, aged 20-25 and are "medically fit as per international standards". The ad even specified that "candidates with skin problems need not apply".

"This is the textbook example of what you are not supposed to do," she explains with a laugh. "It breaks at least two or three anti-discrimination laws. We contacted Aftenposten, who has acknowledged the mistake and promised it will no longer print the ad. We are now going to contact the airline to tell them they must do a new ad." 

Before the ombud office was set up in January an array of organisations specialised on a particular type of prejudice, such as the gender equality ombud or the centre against ethnic discrimination. Gangås believes the new, all-encompassing approach will be more effective in tackling discrimination.

"We have different laws that are concerned with specific groups," she says.

"But whether it is because of someone's gender, skin colour or age, the mechanism for discrimination is the same." It will also avoid the problem of overlapping types of prejudice, she believes. "lf a black woman comes to me because she suspects she did not get a job promotion," she asks, "is it because she is black, is it because she is a woman, or is it because she is a black woman?"

One of the main challenges will be to tackle Norwegian society's attitude towards ethnic minorities:" I think we have a lot to learn on this from other countries. We are a young nation when it comes to multiculturalism: we are not aware we discriminate against different ethnic minorities. They have a very difficult time getting jobs. Many employers won't even interview candidates who have a foreign name. Perhaps this is due to ignorance."

The ombud has currently two projects on her desk: one is to look into encouraging men to spend more time looking after children and have a better work-life balance. The other; also an EU-sponsored project, is to examine methods to measure discrimination.

"It is a fascinating and very difficult subject," says Gangås. "Is it fair to measure discrimination by the amount of people who complain officially? Or is it actually a measure of success, because people feel confident they can complain? Should discrimination be measured through the people who never complain or the ones we never hear from?"

For the moment though, her key priority is to spread the word about her existence throughout the country.

"It is really important that people know who we are and what we are here for. l want to reach as many people as possible so that they know we are here to help them."

"If we are not known, then we would have failed in our jobs."



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