Vice President Mike Pence (Photo: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons)
Who knew Mike Pence is such a lustful rascal?
I’m referring, of course, to the recent profile of Pence’s wife Karen in which Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker notes: “In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that 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.”
Wow, what an animal Pence must be! The implication is that he can barely control himself alone in a restaurant with a woman or even in a cocktail party packed with people, unless someone (preferably his wife) is holding him by the leash.
Gosh, it must be awfully hard to get work done in a place like Washington, where women are lurking at every corner.
As you’d expect, the backlash to Pence’s policy was immediate. In Vox , SMU law professor Joanna Grossman condemns Pence’s practice as “clearly illegal when practiced by a boss in an employment setting, and deeply damaging to women’s employment opportunities.”
And in Cosmopolitan (did you know Cosmo is a feminist pub?), former law firm associate Jill Filipovic writes: “If men like Pence won’t engage with women one-on-one in informal settings, it’s the women who miss out—because it’s still men who run the show,” adding that there’s only so much a woman can do at those “ladies-only” networking events.
So true. But here’s what puzzles me about all the outrage directed at Pence: Is his cautionary policy toward women really that different from what goes on in law firms and the rest of Corporate America?
From what I’ve observed, many male partners practice some version of Pence’s policy. They might be OK about lunching alone with a female associate, but dining with her at night? No, no, no. They’re essentially Mike Pence Lite.
A lot of that unequal treatment is ingrained in the culture. Recalling her own experience in a law firm, Filipovic writes that male associates enjoyed certain privileges not accorded to women:
I noticed they would mention weekends golfing at a partner’s club, or afternoons at a baseball game with their boss and a prospective client. Sometimes, these same young men who were at the same stage of their professional lives as I was, would mention the advice they got from partners during these informal outings—tips on how to bring in business or how to position themselves to make partner someday.
Any woman who’s worked in a law firm or corporate setting is probably familiar with those scenarios. How many times have we seen one of our male colleagues trot off with a senior partner for after-work drinks while we stayed behind at the office? (Yes, I’ve experienced this in the world of journalism, too.)
All that male bonding might seem natural, but I think it also speaks of a primal fear of women in the workplace. A woman might be an ace litigator or dealmaker, but she’s always judged as a potential sex object who can ruin a man’s career.
You might remember that consultant Sylvia Ann Hewitt found in her 2012 study that 64 percent of senior men would not sponsor a woman precisely because it entails spending one-on-one time together that might spark rumors of an inappropriate relationship.
What’s more, I suspect men fear that women might use those unchaperoned meetings to levy unfounded charges of harassment. (You know, like what poor Bill O’Reilly claims he faced when Fox shelled out $13 million to settle harassment claims by female employees.)
And let’s not forget that the marriage structure of male bosses influences their views about working with women, too. According to a joint study in 2012 by the University of North Carolina, Harvard University, New York University and the University of Utah, married men with stay-at-home wives or wives who work part time tend to have more negative attitudes about working women. And guess what? Law firm partners and corporate executives tend to have traditional marriages.
Maybe all of these antiquated attitudes will change when the next generation takes over, especially since women make up 50 percent of the junior associates at some big firms. At some point, something’s got to give.
In the meantime, Mike Pence and his prudishness (though some might call it prudence) live on.
Contact Vivia Chen at email@example.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.