The Pence Rule and its Discontents

As if the Washington swamp—crawling as it does with an enormous number of statutes, acts, regulations, directives, and the like—needed more of the same, we now have the “Pence Rule,” named for Vice President Mike Pence who let it be known that he “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife.”  This revelation has become a subject of intense discussion among feminists and others who occupy themselves with regulating all manner of personal interactions, especially those between the sexes (or should I say between the “genders?”).

Some, like Olga Khazan at The Atlantic, think that a rule of this sort hurts women, for it deprives them of networking opportunities and mentoring relationships that could further their careers. It also hinders a woman’s ability to push her agenda. Especially in “boozy, late-working Washington,” if Pence won’t do happy hour with her, how can a female staffer convince him of the essential morality of aborting by dismembering babies?

Khazan is skeptical of the claim that Pence’s eponymous Rule is an expression of his devotion to his wife, “a standard to ensure a strong marriage.” Rather, she perceptively attributes it to prudential considerations: To wit, the coward won’t risk putting himself in a situation wherein his interest can be misconstrued as sexual. And who can blame him?

What man needs to court the very real possibility that treating a female colleague as “one of the guys” will ruin his career? Think of the casual slap on the back that the overwrought feminist sensitivity turns into a “bad touch” or the innocent joke that is weaponized against the joke-teller. Question: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: That’s not funny!

For Khazan, the solution is “to normalize men and women interacting professionally, in a non-sexual way. ‘If you always saw men and women meeting together for dinner…people wouldn’t see it as suspicious.’” This solution, however, addresses only what other people might think when they see the pretty young intern thoughtfully humidify the boss’s cigar for him over digestifs. Normalization will only serve to increase the situations that give rise to allegations of sexual impropriety.

Asha Rangappa, an associate dean at Yale Law School, recognizes the absurdity of the claim that normalization will defuse situations—for, let’s face it, men are beasts. Rangappa maintains that the “prevalence of sexual harassment claims…filed by women demonstrates” that many men cannot “be trusted to behave professionally when they are alone with women.” How can a woman focus on what her mentor is saying when the possibility of inappropriate behavior hangs over a woman’s head like the sword of Damocles?

Rangappa uses the word “demonstrates” to imply that the existence of mere claims of harassment proves the existence of actual harassment. But nothing can be further from the truth. An embarrassing number of high-profile harassment cases in recent years have been shown to be shams, and many others are simply frivolous, as the definition of harassment has become increasingly broad and vague. Such claims are a special problem on college campuses, where cases are heard and adjudicated in camera, and where the accuser may not be questioned by the accused, who very often is not even allowed to know the evidence against him or to call his own witnesses.

In any event, work-related socializing is a lose-lose situation for women, according to Rangappa. On the one hand, the kind of assertive and authoritative behavior we like in men makes women seem less pleasant. So casually inviting the guys out for drinks, or showing that she can hold her liquor without getting into a bar fight, won’t help a woman in her career. On the other hand, hosting a family-style dinner for her colleagues in her home, with her husband and children providing cover, will make a woman likeable but undercut her image as a professional leader.

So what sorts of co-ed social might be appropriate for folks in the workplace? Not traditional “old boys” activities, like talking shop over golf, for Rangappa frets that they “intersect with race, class and sex in ways that systematically exclude underrepresented groups from taking advantage of them.” Really? Even after eight years of an incessantly golfing black president, a man who organizes a golf day for his junior colleagues can be accused of discrimination?

Would knitting bees work? Not if they’re scheduled for the evening. For even the most innocent of social activities can “disproportionately exclude women, who often bear a greater brunt of childcare responsibilities that limit their flexibility after work.”

What to do? Rangappa assures us that she’s not proposing that we cease all informal socializing, for that “would make most workplaces unbearably monotonous.” Instead, as day follows night, rule must beget rule, and Rangappa proposes 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?” You want to discuss a project with your co-worker? Don’t do it until you can rope in another body, even if it’s the mail person.

This sort of thinking may account for the success of an enterprising young woman I met a few years ago who’s built a lucrative business providing “safe retreats” for IKEA executives in Sweden. Four times a year a morning is devoted to interpersonal development. Yoga mats are arranged in a circle, colored crayons and paper are provided, along with scissors and glue, and participants spend a day creatively expressing their feelings through art. You can learn a lot about your colleagues from their scribbles and montages, and who can object to a roomful of adults, some from the highest levels of corporate power, regressing to the level of preschoolers?

This is where our culture has brought us. Human relationships that we used to take for granted because they were so natural have become fraught. The fetishization of harassment and discrimination fantasies has hurt us all. There is a growing distrust between the sexes, races, ethnicities and other identity groups, in the face of which we reach for more rules and bureaucratization to regulate even our most intimate interactions.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done by associate law school deans and corporate diversity officers. There are protocols to be worked out, manuals to be written.

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