A Modified ‘Pence Rule’ Would Be Good for Working Women
By Asha Rangappa
The words “feminism” and “ Mike Pence ” don’t often end up in the same sentence—unless the vice president is being bashed. Mr. Pence’s views on reproductive rights alone make him the Voldemort of women’s rights. So it’s no surprise that Mr. Pence’s revelation that (as of 2002) he “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife” has come under a lot of scrutiny because of how his principle discriminates against women.
But normalizing date-like socializing as a means to succeed in the workplace isn’t particularly feminist and can actually create even more barriers to women’s professional advancement.
The primary objection to “The Rule,” as I’ll call it, is that by refusing to be alone with women in social settings, senior men deprive women of networking opportunities they need for professional mentoring and advancement. The deeper issue this critique overlooks is that this imbalance is caused by the dearth of women in senior positions to begin with. Women make up only 5% of CEOs in the Standard & Poor’s 500, 20% of Congress, and 26% of leadership positions at colleges and universities.
Mr. Pence’s critics also assume that in the absence of The Rule women otherwise have equal access to these social events, which is not true. Traditional “old boys” social activities, like talking shop over golf, intersect with race, class and sex in ways that systematically exclude underrepresented groups from taking advantage of them. Even seemingly neutral social events, like impromptu evening drinks or dinner, can disproportionately exclude women, who often bear a greater brunt of child-care responsibilities that limit their flexibility after work.
Informal one-on-one networking also reinforces stereotypes that can inhibit women’s professional success. The well-known “Heidi and Howard” study conducted by Harvard Business School, which examined reactions to the same résumé when it contained a male name versus a female name, found that, unlike men, women make trade-offs between success and likability.
When women employ the same strategies that make men seem successful—think: assertiveness and authoritativeness—they are seen as less pleasant to work with. Conversely, emphasizing intimate settings as a means to success reinforces women’s social roles of being charming, warm and friendly. Those are all qualities you’d want in a social interaction, but precisely those that can undercut women striving to be perceived as effective professional leaders.
Most troubling are the ways in which one-on-one interactions have the potential to be used as weapons against women by men who abuse their power. Most men can be trusted to behave professionally when they are alone with women. But the prevalence of sexual harassment claims, more than 80% of which are filed by women, demonstrates that many cannot. Sexual harassment is rarely an isolated quid pro quo. Rather, the blurring of boundaries between the professional and personal occurs slowly over time, which is why he-said/she-said scenarios are much more common.
A woman shouldn’t have to forgo professional mentoring and advancement if she begins to sense that something doesn’t feel right in her interactions with a superior. But her continued willingness to be alone in casual social situations with a male colleague can later provide him with both cover and a defense if he behaves inappropriately, by suggesting that the woman’s claim is fabricated—and perhaps even that she pursued the advances.
The answer isn’t to shut down informal socializing, which would make most workplaces unbearably monotonous. Sarah Skwire illustrates this well by imagining what would happen if men applied The Rule equally to male and female colleagues. But more than just an interesting thought experiment, this points toward a new Rule 2.0: What if workplace norms simply encouraged informal networking to take place in groups of three or more, regardless of sex?
In an age when sexually related pitfalls could occur as easily among members of the same sex, it would help avoid these situations entirely. The inconvenience of having to include at least one extra person in a social invitation would be offset by promoting inclusiveness and connection across more diverse colleagues. For senior women, who are often expected to fulfill the same mentoring responsibilities as their male counterparts despite having potentially less time to do so, larger gatherings have the added benefit of allowing them to meet this expectation more efficiently.
Structural changes—like increasing parity between men and women in senior positions, or having more equal distribution of child-care responsibilities in marriages—would go a long way to correcting some of the shortcomings I’ve described. Even so, a woman’s success shouldn’t rest on her gazing into her boss’s eyes in the corner of a candlelit bistro. At the very least, Mike Pence has offered us an opportunity to examine, and even challenge, the social dynamics that lead to women’s professional success. He might have unwittingly become a feminist pioneer.
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