Editorial: The Pence Rule Erects Another Barrier to Women

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Trump administration is living proof that when it comes to relations between the sexes, not only have we not come a long way, we may be backsliding. Before being elected, the president himself was notorious for misconduct with women. The Cabinet is the whitest and malest in 35 years, and among top staffers, women are outnumbered by men two to one, according to a New York Times analysis.

The point was underscored in a different way in March, when the Pence rule against extramarital dining resurfaced in a Washington Post profile. That’s Pence as in Vice President Mike Pence, who as a congressman in 2002 told The Hill “that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” At the time, we chalked this up to a quirk of the evangelical Christianity so enthusiastically practiced by Pence and his wife, Karen. After all, how would business ever be transacted if the Pence rule were adhered to widely?

As it turns out, Pence appears to have a surer grasp of American business practices and social mores than we do. The New York Times earlier this month reported on a survey it had commissioned, the headline of which accurately conveyed the astonishing (to us) conclusion: “It’s Not Just Mike Pence: Americans Are Wary of Being Alone With the Opposite Sex.” The survey of 5,300 registered voters in May found that about 25 percent believe that private meetings at work with a member of the opposite sex are inappropriate, and nearly two-thirds say people should use extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women and nearly half of men think that dinner or drinks with a member of the opposite sex other than a spouse is wrong, and more than a third also disapproved of lunch and car rides in the same circumstances. Reasons cited were the temptation to sexual impropriety and the reputational damage that can be done by the appearance of impropriety.

It’s possible that these attitudes are shaped as much by a popular culture that tends to sexualize all relations between women and men as they are by personal experience. But in any case, in a business environment still dominated by men, this situation inevitably means that women lag behind in opportunity for advancement. Lots of important decisions get made in one-on-one meetings that need to be held privately, either in or out of the office. If a woman cannot be present at such meetings, how can she contribute?

The Atlantic has reported that Pence is hardly the only man in Washington who “goes to great lengths to avoid the appearance of impropriety with the opposite sex.” It cited an anonymous survey of female Capitol Hill staffers conducted in 2015 that found several who had been barred from working with their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with them, or even having one-on-one meetings in the office. No wonder, the magazine noted, that in a town where the motto of lobbyists goes “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” issues of particular importance to women either take a backseat or, worse yet, become targets for hostile action, such as defunding Planned Parenthood.

What’s particularly troubling about the Pence rule and the attitudes expressed in the survey is that they are applied without discrimination. It makes eminent sense to avoid meeting alone with someone with whom one is uncomfortable, but to make it a blanket rule to avoid people of the other sex is to cut off potentially fruitful professional and personal relationships for both men and women.

It is hard to become a fully-realized human being without having friends — and business associates — of the opposite sex. Friendships between women and men frequently have an easy intimacy of the non-physical sort that can enrich life immeasurably and are very different from same-sex friendships. They ought to be encouraged in the concrete, not proscribed in the abstract.