The calendar may state that it’s 2017, but believe it or not, we’re actually having a national conversation about whether it’s acceptable for a man to be alone with a woman if she’s not his wife.
Heated arguments erupted on Twitter and between conservative and liberal writers after the Washington Post ran a profile of Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen. One line of this piece included the detail that the vice president “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.” (Pence has also previously said that any aide who stays late to assist him in his office must be male.)
Seriously what's the appropriate reason for a married person to go out for a meal alone with a member of the other sex (outside of family)?
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) March 30, 2017
And the polarized online world split predictably between those claiming misogyny and gender discrimination and those who saw a good man who values his marriage being unfairly attacked.
Pence can have his private moral code. But if it discriminates against women, then he shouldn't hold public office. https://t.co/r9o5bwV3ea
— Jill Filipovic (@JillFilipovic) March 31, 2017
Mike Pence never dines alone w a woman not his wife, nor does he attends events w alcohol, w/o her by his side. https://t.co/BxfS0JzbAc
— Ashley Parker (@AshleyRParker) March 29, 2017
Among conservative Christians — including those in Congress — this practice of avoiding one-on-one contact with women, even in professional settings, is sometimes called the Billy Graham Rule. Billy Graham was an evangelical leader who was worried about the sexual temptations that could (supposedly) inevitably arise between men and women when they interacted outside of the boundaries of marriage. Graham said that he would “not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.” In 2015, the The Atlantic wrote about how female staffers of Congressmen who follow this rule are routinely barred from private meetings, from driving with their male bosses, and from evening events.
It doesn’t matter to me what goes on between Karen and Mike Pence in their private marriage. By all accounts, they have a deep, satisfying, faithful, and respectful bond that has lasted decades, and I’m happy for them.
What does matter to me are these harmful problems in Pence’s reasoning and behavior:
This type of marriage rule perpetuates archaic stereotypes about both men and women that hurt women professionally, and those stereotypes are bad for our kids.
By the logic of Pence’s behavior, any female co-workers should be seen primarily as sexual objects and potential temptresses, not as colleagues. And by the same logic, men lack the self-control to avoid their sexual impulses. They are simply unable to control themselves around women, without their wives there to chaperone them. Both of these stereotypes are insulting and limiting to both genders.
I have a son and a daughter. I do not want my son to view all interactions with women as tainted with the potential of sexual transgression. I want him to perceive women as friends and professional equals. And I do not want my daughter to view herself as a sexual temptation, incapable of having close professional relationships with men because she is a female.
This rule limits the opportunities of all women.
Women — but not men — in male-dominated professions would be unable to have business dinners with men, private meetings, and mentorship lunches. As one female scientist friend told me, “I don’t see how it would be possible for me to do my job if my boss couldn’t meet one-on-one with me. Project updates, performance reviews, I meet with them one-on-one all the time.”
Treating male and female co-workers differently might actually be illegal.
According to workplace discrimination laws, employers are not allowed to treat employees differently based on gender. One employment lawyer wrote in Vox: “By law, working dinners with the boss could be considered an opportunity to which both sexes must have equal access.”
Elura Nanos, legal analyst for Law Newz agrees. She says, “In the United States, it’s rarely a good idea to treat the genders differently in any professional or other official capacity. The law is well-settled that most instances of such double-standarding amounts to discrimination. Pence may think his logic is fantastic, in that it minimizes the risk that he’ll have an affair or be accused of inappropriate conduct or be tempted, but women live and work in this world, and our vice president would do better to accept it and learn to work alongside all kinds of people.”
Women have long faced discrimination in the workplace. In 2017, they should not continue to be shut out of private meetings, business trips, professional dinners, or late-night office sessions for fear of tempting their male colleagues to stray from their marriage.
Working women deserve better than this. So do our daughters.