It’s a problem when men avoid one-on-one meetings with women

This issue goes beyond religion and ideology.

CREDIT: iStockPhoto
CREDIT: iStockPhoto

Conservatives have rushed to the defense of Vice President Mike Pence after a Washington Post article about his wife, Karen Pence, resurfaced the detail that he does not eat alone with another woman. Pence will not attend events where there is alcohol present without her by his side, either.

Some people have defended Pence by saying that as an evangelical Christian, he is simply practicing his faith and safeguarding his marriage by “avoiding temptation.” Several conservative men said they don’t see any reason to dine alone with women either.

On Twitter, Matt Walsh, a conservative blogger, asked what an “appropriate reason” would be to eat a meal with “the other sex” outside of family. Erick Erickson, a conservative blogger and radio show host, responded that there are only two acceptable reasons: planning a surprise party or a funeral.

But this practice can be religious and still be rooted in patriarchal notions about women’s value in society. It can be a tenet of one’s faith and still be harmful to women. In fact, this reluctance to eat a meal alone with a woman reveals insidious barriers for women in their professional lives — and goes beyond the attitudes of conservative Christian men.

Although the issue may seem small, women are accustomed to men of all political ideologies and faiths failing to acknowledge them in a professional context instead of a romantic and sexual one.

When co-workers meet with each other alone in any professional context, whether they are eating a meal or not, they have a chance to forge a professional bond that could stay with them for their rest of their careers. It is particularly important that people have the opportunity to meet with their supervisors and foster a relationship of open communication and mutual respect. Some industries have cultures where dining out during or after work with colleagues is very common. Women are at a disadvantage if they are shut out from that culture, whether they aren’t invited to one-on-one dinners as their male colleagues are, or aren’t welcome at group events because men think a woman’s presence would dampen the festivities.

These issues aren’t simply theoretical. Women on Capitol Hill say they are struggling to work effectively and advance in a culture where their male colleagues have one-on-one time with their bosses that they are never allowed. A 2015 National Journal survey showed that some offices would not allow women to be alone with their male bosses.

One anonymous staffer said there was an “office rule” that she couldn’t be alone with the congressman she worked for; another staffer said her boss never took a closed-door meeting with her over the course of 12 years.

One woman wrote, “There is a great deal of favoritism in the office. The women work the hardest and the men get all the benefits — the high-profile trips with my boss, greater access to the White House, and prestigious contacts. It’s a boys club and the women are rarely invited.”

But this treatment goes beyond Capitol Hill. A 2010 Center for Talent Innovation study found that almost two-thirds of male executives said they stopped having one-on-one meetings with junior female employees because they feared people would think they were having an affair.

This fear infects the interactions male professors have with female students as well. Catherine Rampell wrote in The Washington Post that a middle-aged male economist told her would never get a deal or drinks with a female advisee alone or have a meeting where the door wasn’t open 90 degrees. These rules did not apply to his male students, because in those cases, no one would perceive him as lecherous. He insisted that these rules were to protect female students from gossip as well.

The issue of women meeting with men alone at a time when women make up 47 percent of the labor force is so emotionally fraught that there are career advice articles on the subject. In an advice article about women seeking mentors, The Muse asked male executives if they would meet with young women. Oli Thordarson, the president and CEO of Alvaka Networks, expressed concerns. Like the men Rampell mentioned in her article, Thordarson blamed his fear of being alone with women on the fear of being accused of sexual harassment, even though he never cited any example where a woman came close to accusing him of inappropriate behavior.

“When I was about 35, there was heightened awareness of sex discrimination and harassment, and the lawyer and seminars scared me,” Thordarson told The Muse. “I wouldn’t want to defend myself against an allegation that I did something and the other party is a woman under 30, especially if she’s attractive.”

Thordarson said he did mentor a woman, but never met with her without leaving the office door open. He said he also made sure never to stay at the office when she was the only staff person there for “appearance’s sake.”

The article gives women tips for forging a successful relationship with a male boss, such as meeting in public so no one considers your relationship romantic and frequently talking about a significant other if you have one.

Rape Culture At Work: Five Examples Of How Employers Turn Women Into Sex Objectsthinkprogress.orgAlthough women have to make practical decisions for their particular work environment, this approach ultimately feeds into the sexualization of women at work. In 2017, women should not need to have significant others to convince their co-workers that they aren’t sleeping with their mentor, boss, or colleague. When men show such concern for the appearance of impropriety, they risk both looking guilty of the very thing they’re afraid of being accused of and showing that they distrust women. In the long term, industry leaders need to work on fostering office cultures that do not treat women as if they are invading spaces that belong to men.

Looking through the lens of LGBQ workers’ experiences, these assumptions are also heterosexist. The context of LGBQ people’s lives is rarely explored in these conversations. If a woman is gay, does she have a better chance to succeed in a male-dominated industry because she isn’t perceived as interested in men, or will a male colleague or boss ignore her sexuality? Do bisexual people avoid closed door meetings with everyone? Will people assume gay male bosses are hitting on the men who work under them in all situations or only if the men who report to him are gay or bisexual?

In all contexts, professional meetings at and outside of work need to be desexualized and understood for what they are — opportunities for people who work in the same industry to get to know each other and benefit from each others’ experience and ideas.