An idea straight out of “When Harry Met Sally”—that men and women can’t just be friends—has been institutionalized at the federal level with grim consequences for professional women. A recent Washington Post profile of Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, unearthed a quote from 2002 in which Mike Pence stated he would not eat dinner alone with women other than his wife. While the quote itself is old, the sentiment offers a unique window into the way the Vice President views women, especially women in the professional sphere. Pence’s refusal to eat alone with women essentially locks them out of prominent positions in government while also promoting damaging stereotypes about relationships between men and women.
Pence is in not alone in his hesitance to be seen alone with female staffers in Washington; the problem infects several offices in Congress. While the situation is not the norm in Washington, it is well documented that female staffers are often discouraged from meeting alone with their male employers. A study from the National Journal in 2015 reported that both male and female staffers are aware of the unofficial policy used to prevent the appearance of anything untoward going on in the offices. To achieve this, women are barred from “staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office.” Male staffers also anonymously reported that they took advantage of this, getting more time with their bosses as a result. The practice seems like a clear-cut case of employee discrimination. In fact, a spokesperson from the Office of Compliance, which oversees workplace disputes in Congress, commented that “policies, official or unofficial, that prohibit female staff from being alone with a Member can be discriminatory and create an unequal playing field in the workplace.”
If women are not able to meet alone with their employers, they are left out of vital decision making and strategizing, which hinders their ability to do their job. One female staffer told the National Journal that, in 12 years working with her male boss, he never took a closed-door meeting with her, which limited her ability to participate in “sensitive and strategic discussions.” Especially within the realm of politics, this limits female participation in crucial policy-making that affects women. Besides restricting a woman’s ability to perform her job well, the practice severely limits her opportunity to advance in her field. Politics is an area (unsurprisingly) dominated by men and which depends on one’s ability to network. A career could be dead in the water if one has no chance of building connections with the dominant members of Congress because they can’t meet alone and cultivate a relationship for fear of the appearance of a scandal.
This is part of a larger conversation about how sexual harassment training can have a similar effect on women’s working relationships in the professional domain. The problem of sexual harassment must be addressed, but the way the training is conducted encourages men to exclude women to prevent the perception of sexual harassment rather than the act itself. Kim Elsesser writes for the Los Angeles Times that sexual harassment training “had no impact on participants’ knowledge about sexual harassment or on the likelihood they would engage in harassing behaviors” and actually increased confusion about the nature of sexual harassment. Preventing sexual harassment is extremely important for all people in the workplace, but not to the direct detriment of women’s careers. In order to prevent this, it’s time to radicalize the way women and men think that they can interact.
This practice is not only symptomatic of the overwhelmingly white-boys club that is the American political system; it reeks of rape culture, privilege, and heteronormativity. Mike Pence and like-minded legislators refusing to have dinner alone with women for fear of their marriages harkens back to an ugly stereotype that men cannot control themselves around the possibility of sex. Women are reduced to sexual objects, seen as temptresses who perhaps desire nothing more than to rob innocent men of their capacity for fidelity. Men should be offended by the implication that they are so weak willed that they have no self-control and cannot handle being alone with a woman without imploding their marriage. Excusing this line of thought is central to the perpetuation of rape culture; the idea that men aren’t liable for their actions because their desire is too strong to be contained must be dismissed.
Another dimension to this whole mess is the privilege associated with Pence’s religion, race, and gender. The practice, based on what has been reported, seems to involve a male boss restricting the access of a female staffer. If any female legislator refused to dine or meet alone with men, she would not be able to get anything done; it says a lot about our current government that men can go their whole careers without meeting with women and still reach high levels of success. Pence’s status as a white Christian using his religious beliefs to justify his position also insulates him from criticism. As founder of the Black List, Franklin Leonard tweeted, if Keith Ellison, a Muslim man, were to refuse to dine with women on the basis of his religion, “the political right would lose their minds.” Pence using Christianity to justify his exclusion of women paints him as a moral figure, especially within the context of rampant Islamophobia.
The notion that a male boss cannot meet alone with a female staffer because of the appearance of a sexual relationship is wrapped up in ideas about how men and women are expected to interact. These ideas are exceedingly heteronormative; men and women aren’t always only looking for sexual relationships with women and men, respectively. Again, constant sexualization of women and insistence that men only think with their dicks infects the way that men and women can interact platonically in all situations. Both men and women should be outraged by these implications.
During the exhausting 2016 campaign, it was apparent that Donald Trump advocated for and committed sexual assault. Yet here, his Vice President demonstrates that there are even more insidious ways of denying women autonomy. By removing them from any lawmaking decisions and ensuring that an already male-dominated sphere remains that way, what starts as a funny joke about Mike Pence’s increasingly weird marriage becomes a tool to keep women out of high positions in government.