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How Gendered Dining Rules Like Pence’s Hurt Women At Work

When the Washington Post reported last week that in 2002, Vice President Mike Pence claimed “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,” the internet, shall we say, reacted. Some reactions were, however, more helpful than others.

Does it matter — and is it anyone’s business — whether Pence has women friends? And is table-for-two dining even a requirement of friendship? No and no. While a case could certainly be made that Pence’s religious beliefs impact his politics, even public figures have a right to privacy in their marriages. And yes, as many remarked, the rules are similar to ones observed by devout Jews and Muslims, although I’d argue that curious (to outsiders) practices of observant members of minority religions are brought up in order to Other even secular members of minority ethnic groups, in a way with no equivalent in Pence’s case. But for sure, it’s worth remembering that many Americans are not living a post-gender, secular existence, and that at the very least, the perspective of religious conservatives ought to be better understood.

Why, then, is this a story? Gender-based rules like the ones Pence said he follows — whether religiously motivated or rooted on broader cultural norms — can create obstacles to women in the workplace. This is an important question to raise even if Pence himself — as some women who worked with him insist — has helped women’s careers. In Vox, employment lawyer Joanna L. Grossman makes a calm, convincing case for why the presumption of a romantic component to all man-woman interaction winds up hurting women’s careers:

Pence’s defenders said he was merely acting prudently, and expressed amazement at the all the fuss. Yet we know that women pay a heavy price for behavior that either resembles his or falls on the same continuum. We know this from anecdotal reports and surveys of women who report exclusion from travel, events, or one-on-one meetings with male bosses; from cases in which men have fired female subordinates to assuage jealous wives; and from decades of employment-discrimination litigation in which we get a picture of the everyday ways in which workplaces remain unequal for women.

This is key. It’s a problem for women in the workplace if men think every meeting is a date, even if their approach is to avoid scheduling those meetings to begin with. It’s a problem precisely because men still tend to be the ones in charge, so even a gender-neutral moral objection to alone time with members of the gender(s) one is attracted to will wind up penalizing women. If it turns out that enough people (men) feel as Pence evidently did in 2002, the answer would be to reduce the place of private dinners and alcohol in the workplace, not to preserve male executives’ marriages (or reputations) at the expense of women’s careers.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at [email protected] She is the author of “The Perils Of ‘Privilege’”, from St. Martin’s Press. Follow her on Twitter, @tweetertation

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