Recently, Vice President Mike Pence has been the center of discussion following a Washington Post article profiling his wife, Second Lady Karen Pence.
To quote the article: “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.”
Many have criticized Pence, claiming that his decision limits the ability for women to develop professional relationships with Pence as a mentor, a peer, or a political supporter. Pence’s decision allows him to develop robust professional relationships with men on a one-on-one basis, but not with women.
I want to share my take on this issue, in case it proves useful. It’s my personal take, and I’m not expecting anyone to agree with it completely.
1) Does anyone have the actual words that Pence said to the Hill in 2002? I tried searching for it online (even on the Internet Archive), but couldn’t find it. I would like to get his actual words in context. From the WP article, it seems like his decision to not dine alone with a woman other than his wife is based on his religious convictions, but I would appreciate more clarity.
2) Having grown up in a conservative Evangelical church, I can understand Pence’s decision. I grew up in a community that had norms to keep people far away from possible immoral behavior. I grew up in a community that said people shouldn’t date in college, out of concern that dating would interfere with their religious life. I heard that phrase often, “I can’t date right now because I need to focus on my relationship with God.”
In some cases, the norms got pretty extreme. One of my friends was in charge of coordinating rides after church service on Sunday to get college students back home. It was a hassle, because he had to make sure that no guys and girls were sitting next to each other in the back seat of the car. I think that was a bit much. But I understood that the heart behind these norms was to protect people from potential danger.
At this point, I don’t adhere to these strict norms. I believe that rather than shielding people from these potential problems, we are better served in teaching them how to navigate thorny areas with care. But I appreciate that the heart behind the norms was one of care and protection (even as I recognize that they may have resulted in real pain for people).
3) I sincerely doubt that Pence would refuse to dine with his female diplomatic counterpart from a foreign country. If he met with VP Inonge Wina of Zambia, or VP Leni Robredo of the Philippines, or VP Gabriela Michetti of Argentina, I imagine that he would dine with them. But I also wonder whether these diplomatic dinners are truly solo affairs, without the typical gaggle of aides and attendants.
4) What Pence does in his private life is his prerogative. I hope that everyone, even those who disagree with his choices, would agree that he has the freedom to make that choice.
5) Pence’s critics point out that his personal choices may have consequences for women who find their professional opportunities stymied by a lack of mentorship opportunities. The conversation regarding Pence’s choices fits in a broader context of how women are not able to access the same professional opportunities as men. This is an important conversation for all of us. I know that this is an issue that my female colleagues face, and I for one want to be attentive, hear their stories, and support them.
6) The broader question is how do we reconcile personal choices with the systemic effects of those choices. If all men were to act the same way as Pence, we would see at least some effects for women’s professional opportunities. To what extent should that matter to Pence? And what would be the loving, gracious, and even-handed response from Pence, given that he is likely not going to change his ground rules.
7) It’s easy to make this about Mike and Karen Pence, to praise or pillory them. But I want to turn this to myself. What lessons can I learn from this whole story?
First, I admire Pence’s initiative to lay out ground rules for his work and family relationships. I don’t know if I would lay out the same ground rules myself, as I’m not in a relationship now, but I appreciate that he put them in place. I hope that even those who vehemently disagree with his choices could at least recognize that he has put careful thought into the boundaries he puts in his life. I would endeavor to have my own boundaries, such as in not answering work email after work hours.
Second, I am reminded to continue to support my female colleagues as they face professional obstacles. I’m not here to rescue them, or speak for them, or tell them what to do. But I want to work with them to ensure that we have a work culture in which all people are valued, respected, and given equal opportunities.
There’s so much about sexism in the workplace that I still don’t know. I recognize that I have blind spots, and I am open to hearing from others about how I can grow and learn.