Skip To Content

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

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.