Margrethe Vestager saw her first “coloured person” in western Jutland, where she grew up, at the age of 14, she said at a conference on diversity in Copenhagen on Wednesday.
Vestager (Radikale), the minister for economic affairs and the interior, pointed to the relatively new phenomenon of immigration in Denmark when answering questions put forward by a group of about 100 people at the Dimensions of Diversity event held at Danske Bank.
For 40 minutes, Vestager fielded questions on topics surrounding Danes’ interaction with people from diverse backgrounds, and explained why she thought it was taking so long for society to open up.
“The reason it is so slow is probably because we are a nation of peasants. There’s still an old mindset that if someone comes in, you have to feed them too,” she said. “But it should change to say that if more people come, we can feed more.”
She said that idea was all the more pertinent during a time of economic crisis, and encouraged business leaders, many of whom were seated in the audience, to persist with hiring talented foreigners.
“Crisis time is not the time to sit in a cave with a hot chocolate and hope it will pass,” she said. “If we want a growth economy, we need the talent to do so.”
One source of skilled workers she identified was the international students who study in Denmark. Vestager said the government aimed to better integrate these students so they felt more inclined to stay in the country beyond the completion of their studies.
Currently only half remain in Denmark a year after the conclusion of their education, and one of the reasons cited for returning to their home countries was the difficulty of making Danish friends.
“We need to be less pretentious,” Vestager said.
Earlier in the day, Susanne Justesen from Innoversity Copenhagen, highlighted the importance of diversity as a driver for innovation and productivity, and outlined the cultural barriers that many foreigners face in Denmark.
She thinks that when her fellow Danes interact with foreigners, they tend to look for similarities within their international counterparts, rather than focusing on potentially positive differences.
“We are traditionally very homogenous. We are a small country and we tend to think we are the world champions at everything,” Justesen told The Copenhagen Post. “And if you combine these things, we aren’t used to people being different, so we have the attitude where we think they need to learn from us.”
One of the conference’s participants, Tine Gregory is Danish by birth, but left the country at the age of 13 before returning to Denmark two years ago as a spouse.
“I’m not finding it easy to fit in because even though I’m Danish, I’m not like the Danes. I’ve lived here two years and I haven’t been invited into a Danish home for a cup of coffee,” said Gregory.
Though she is well educated and speaks fluent Danish, Gregory said she found it difficult to find a job without having a solid network or professional contacts here. While job seeking, she submitted about 18 applications without receiving a single response.
She said that although the conference would not put diversity on top of Danish companies’ agendas immediately, Gregory was at least encouraged by the effort.
“Will it change Denmark overnight? No. But we need to at least move in the right direction,” she said.
The conference was organised by the Consortium for Global Talent, Microsoft Development Centre Copenhagen, the Danske Industri and Danske Erhverv.
Other presenters included the US ambassador to Denmark, chief executives, business representatives and a neuroscientist.