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In the wake of #MeToo, Eske Willerslev leaves his office door open: »It’s a precautionary measure«

Navigating a new culture at the university in the wake of #MeToo is no easy task. Many employees fear being accused of offensive behaviour, according to Professor Eske Willerslev.

Eske Willerslev does not conduct closed door meetings with female students or colleagues anymore. Transparency is key.

»It’s a precautionary measure,« he says.

The rules of conduct and behaviour have changed post-#MeToo according to the DNA researcher and professor Eske Willerslev. Fellow researchers and employees at the University of Copenhagen fear being accused of offensive behaviour, he says.

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»It is similar to accusing a researcher of malpractice. A mere accusation is enough to tarnish your reputation. It is my impression that people live in fear of being accused of something. That leads to measures like an open-door policy at meetings.«

Eske Willerslev leaves his door open during meetings so no one can question what goes on in his office.

No more compliments

The MeToo movement broke through in 2017, and the following year the University of Copenhagen instituted a zero-tolerance policy on offensive behaviour. The rule set was later revised to accommodate critics who claimed that the rules were too open to interpretation to a point where freedom of speech and research were under threat. The rule set states that employees and students have the right to complain when subject to »bullying, sexual harassment or other types of offensive behaviour.«

Eske Willerslev believes the MeToo movement is a justified and necessary reaction to discrimination and offensive behaviour.

The worst thing, I can imagine, is being thought of as an old white pig who is completely oblivious to everything going on.

Eske Willerslev, professor

»I could never have imagined some of the things that have come to light. There is no doubt that this has been a real problem at the university and still is. I see it as a positive development when both male and female students react and stand up to discrimination and offensive behaviour,« he says.

But because #MeToo has transformed the culture of conduct at the university, employees are now struggling to navigate the standards of appropriate behaviour. In conversation, Eske Willerslev is often worried about whether what he is saying can be construed as offensive, he says. He is very careful with his words and abstains from paying compliments to colleagues, whether male or female, if they are sporting a new outfit or haircut to work. That was not the case five years ago.

»I am 49 years old, but this is actually the first time in my life I’ve felt old. My generation speaks very candidly and without mincing words. It’s clear to me that the younger generation has a different set of values,« he says.

»You cannot talk about anything related to gender and ethnicity. Those subjects have become taboo. For a middle-aged man it is a difficult culture to navigate, but I do my best to learn as much as possible,« says Eske Willerslev. He adds that he has previously been told off saying offensive things.

»I think it is a positive development that people no longer let those things slide. If I have offended someone, I apologize and try to learn from the experience.«

In America, you are only allowed to joke about yourself

In addition to working at the University of Copenhagen, Eske Willerslev is also a professor at the University of Cambridge in England. In 2014, he spent time as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley in California. On the flight to America, he was seated next to a Danish expat. Eske Willerslev asked him about his life in the US.

»He told me that he missed one thing about Denmark. He missed not worrying about every word out of his mouth and being able to tell a joke. In the US, everyone lives in fear of being sued, so you can only really make jokes about yourself. That is the only safe choice, but even then you still have to be careful,« says Eske Willerslev.

Eske Willerslev was careful about what he said abroad because he did not wish to offend anyone with his candid tone. At home in Denmark, he has always prioritized fostering a culture of openness.

Eske Willerslev

A Professor at the Section for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen and a member of the university board. He is also a Professor at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain.

Born in 1971. Spent part of his youth fur trapping in Siberia with his twin brother Rane Willerslev.

Became a professor at the University of Copenhagen at the age of 33, the youngest appointee ever at the time.

As an evolutionary geneticist he was the first to sequence the ancient human genome and establishing the field of environmental DNA where modern and ancient DNA from plants and animals are obtained from environmental samples.

Source: ku.dk

»I have always sought to create an environment in which you can express yourself freely. An environment where people felt relaxed and could joke about things. That is the type of environment that I thrive in personally and want to share with others,« says Eske Willerslev.

»But it is definitely my impression that the younger generation prefer a more formal tone. And obviously you have to create an environment that people are comfortable in.«

According to Eske Willerslev, Denmark is starting to feel more and more like America and Great Britain.

»I have to restrain myself, and that is not a problem, I can do that, but I hope that the culture will have changed somewhat in a few years’ time, so people are not constantly worried about saying the wrong things.«

Do you live in fear of being accused of offensive behaviour?

»I would not say that it is something I constantly worry about, but it is something that I am very aware of. Let me put it like this: It is something that I am a hundred percent conscious of in terms of my interactions with people in my work life.«

READ ALSO: Students call for new guidelines to avoid offensive behaviour

We have to able to talk about new behavioural standards

At Cambridge and Berkeley, it is standard practice for male employees to leave their doors open whenever they are in a meeting with a woman. One of Eske Willerslev’s colleagues at Berkeley had a transparent glass door installed, so everyone could see what was going on in his office.

»That is why I have started to leave my door open. I figured that was a better way to go about it, because it is somewhat more discreet,« says Eske Willerslev. So far, he has had no reactions to his new policy.

»I do not really think people notice it. It is not something I have made a big deal out of. I do not always leave my door closed when I am alone in my office either.«

Even though the MeToo movement is justified and necessary, Eske Willerslev also believes that it has become too extreme in some ways.

»It reminds me of the countercultural revolution of the late sixties. That also went too far in some areas, but it did succeed in making lasting changes. That is how I view #MeToo. It is a movement that has confronted some very real problems. In some cases, the reaction goes too far, but that is part of the process before it stabilizes,« he says.

Eske Willerslev believes that many of his colleagues from his own generation have a hard time navigating the new value set but are afraid to address it openly.

»I think a lot of people are struggling with this issue. I obviously cannot say for sure, but that is my sense,« says Eske Willerslev admitting that he too worries about how he is perceived at times.

»The worst thing, I can imagine, is being thought of as an old white pig who is completely oblivious to everything going on. But I think it is important to have an open discussion about it all.«

Translation by Theis Duelund

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