Mike Pence is (maybe not?) a sexist
Last week the Washington Post published a profile on Karen Pence that included no actual interviews with Karen or Mike Pence and was based solely on past interviews the Pences had given or interviews with friends. The profile is as much about the Pences’ marriage as it is about Karen Pence herself. The Pences are described as having a romantic marriage and an extremely close bond. I found the tidbit about the red telephone particularly endearing.
The rest of the world was less concerned about the red telephone and more focused on the following quote from the profile which, I must point out, is not a direct quote from Pence or his 2002 interview with The Hill:
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.
Liberals are outraged. Conservatives are outraged that liberals are outraged. The nation’s Facebook and Twitter users are engaged in a heated discussion about sexism. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that at least we’re all talking about it openly.
So, is Mike Pence a sexist based on this comment alone?
I don’t think we can go that far. As you can see from the Washington Post profile, neither he nor Karen were willing to contribute. Furthermore, none of the several media outlets covering this story seem to have a link to Mike Pence’s original 2002 interview with the Hill. We don’t know what he said, or what context it was in. We don’t know if this is still his practice. So what is there to be upset about?
As with many things, it’s the principle of the matter. It’s the fact that many men hold the concern or belief that they cannot or should not ever be alone with a woman who is not their wife. This is a principle that is hurtful to women. In many industries there’s the notion of a “boy’s club” or group of “good ol’ boys” where men (usually white) team up together and promote each other in business. Many of the relationships that men have with each other in business come not only from the work they do together, but also from the time they spend forming friendships with one another in non-work related settings. Think about golf, for example. Business men golf together, and in the course of a golf game, or perhaps after the golf game over drinks, they talk a little business. Any good businessman or businesswoman will tell you that in so much of business it’s all about your people skills and relationships. It’s not what you know, but who you know. If women don’t have the same opportunities to spend time with the men they are doing business with, they will rarely have the chance to be as successful as their male counterparts.
Similarly, if women don’t have the same access as their male counterparts to the men running the companies, giving the promotions, and making the decisions, how can we ever hope to increase the number of women in leadership positions? In most industries men make up the majority of the leaders. They are the majority of board members, executives, and politicians. Men in power make the majority of decisions about raises and promotions. If these men didn’t allow private meetings or lunches with women, but did allow them for men, the women hoping to be mentored, get a raise, or obtain a promotion would be at a disadvantage to their male counterparts. This unequal treatment of women would result in a continuation of the unequal work environment where men continue to be promoted over women and paid more than women for the same work.
I could go on, but the Atlantic has done a fantastic job of explaining exactly why a policy like the one Mike Pence may have hurts women.
So what do Conservatives think?
They think that Pence is a strong Christian who is trying to, “be faithful to his wife, and to avoid temptation or anything that might even seem inappropriate....”
Let’s take this in pieces. First, there’s the protection of the marriage, which is often linked with Christianity (as if other religions or non-religious folks think it’s perfectly fine to cheat on their spouses). Mike Pence’s policy seems to be associated with Billy Graham, the evangelical Christian minsiter who seems to have come up with, “the rule” himself. But are there other non-sexist things that Pence could do to avoid the “temptation” to cheat on his wife? I think so. He could have windows installed in his offices and conference rooms so that he could have closed door lunches and meetings with anyone, regardless of their sex. Additionally, he could ensure that a member of his staff always remain in the office when he’s having these closed door meetings. He could ensure that every one-on-one meal he took with every person, regardless of their sex, was held in a public location, out in the open. Finally, he could keep in constant contact with his wife and be completely transparent with her about what he’s doing, who he’s with, when he will be gone, and when he will return.
Second, there is the desire to avoid anything that can be perceived as inappropriate. I can understand this. People love to gossip, especially about public figures. Moreover, there is apparently a fear among men of being accused of sexual harassment. In 2002, when he made the supposed statement to The Hill he was a member of Congress, representing Indiana in the House of Representatives. Today he is the second in line for the Presidency. So how can Mike Pence meet with women without starting rumors or gossip that he might be having an affair? How can he avoid being accused of sexual harassment if he’s not actually sexually harassing anyone? I think the same tips listed above could help address these concerns too. He could also avoid sitting too close to others or touching anyone, male or female. It is important that he have the same rules for both sexes to avoid favoritism or sexism.
Finally, and this is huge, he could stop giving a damn what other people think and stand up for the women he works with. Other people will always gossip, and Mike Pence cannot control what other people do or say any more than you or I. What he can control is how he reacts. If Mike Pence and his wife Karen react to any rumors or accusations that may arise in a confident and professional manner, without putting women down or hurting women, that would go a long way. Distancing himself from women or pinning blame on women will only make Mike Pence look like a weak willed man who is one lunch away from cheating on his wife. It won’t make him look like the confident Christian husband he purports to be.