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Pence’s dining rule is problematic, not noble

April 5, 2017

Last week, the world was reminded that Vice President Mike Pence once said he wouldn’t eat alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife, and I laughed so hard I nearly ended up on the floor.

This interesting little tidbit was part of Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker’s feature story on Pence’s wife, Karen. In it, an interview with Pence from 2002 is referred to in which Pence says that he won’t dine with a woman who isn’t his wife, and he doesn’t go to events where alcohol is served without her, either.

On some level, I get it. Seeing a man who holds a position in public office sitting across a table from a woman who isn’t his wife might raise speculation. Even though we know that men and women meet for reasons other than to sneak around behind a spouse’s back, our minds might go there right away. I’m sure we’ve all seen tabloid headlines where a public official or public figure was spotted out with someone, causing the infidelity rumors to run wild.

I also understand that doing business with someone doesn’t always mean going to dinner. That being said, a study published by the Harvard Business Review in 2013 said that the most successful negotiations take place over a meal.

Certainly, I’m not saying that Pence practicing this has meant that all women were excluded from working with or for him. Still, it seems only logical that having this limitation would lead to him working largely with men instead of women, and men being awarded more opportunities for one-on-one conversation.

While it is yet to be determined whether Pence still adheres to this practice, that way of thinking is reflected in the makeup of the White House staff. In February, USA Today reported that twice as many men than women were working as top White House aides. I have a hard time believing there isn’t at least some link to beliefs like this.

Some are praising Pence for the dedication to his marriage and his family. I say this is ridiculous. Dedication to your family is one thing. Telling your significant other where you are or who you’re meeting with is a great practice. In my opinion, that should happen. What shouldn’t happen is excluding half of the workforce so that you don’t have to deal with it.

What is the logic here? To me, it’s just reinforcing the idea that being around women is too much a temptation for men. The implication is that Pence may risk being unfaithful in his marriage if he’s around a woman. Does he not trust himself? If that’s the case, what does this say about how he views women? It sounds to me like he eyes all of them suspiciously, as potential dangers to his marriage. How can we believe he looks at women as professionals if he won’t even be alone with them?

No one seems to know with certainty Pence’s reasoning for following this practice. It could be a reference to famous Christian evangelist Billy Graham, who some know this rule to be named for. It could just be an agreement between Mike and Karen Pence. All kinds of scenarios can be imagined, from him not trusting himself to her not trusting him. Maybe it’s just a way to avoid the speculation that can come with someone in the public eye being seen with someone else.

Whatever the reason, this bizarre way of doing business continues to baffle me. Imagine if heterosexual women in professional fields tried to only eat with and spend time with other heterosexual women. If that seems ridiculous to you, that’s because it is! As women, we’d never get to climb the career ladder.

I think of what it would be like as a journalist to encounter this. Sometimes journalists and sources meet in public places for interviews. Sometimes the journalist is a woman and sometimes the source is a man, and vice versa, obviously. If I tried to set up a conversation with a male source and he told me he couldn’t meet for coffee without his wife, I would look around for hidden cameras. It’s just too absurd to be real.

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