Vice President Mike Pence was in Denver on Oct. 26 to speak at a Republican fundraiser about the promised Republican tax overhaul, but attention for the event was mostly overshadowed by something else. Outside the Marriott Tech Center, more than 100 women protested, dressed in the red robes and white hats of Margaret Atwood’s “handmaids” (from the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, also recently a popular TV show). Women’s rights was the main focus of this protest, and Pence, who in March voted to pass legislation to allow states to withhold federal funds from Planned Parenthood, is a very visible target.
This is not the first time demonstrators have turned out to protest Pence’s position on women’s rights—there were large protests during the March For Life in January, where Pence spoke—but there is another reason that women should oppose Pence, and that is his personal rule that he refuses to eat alone with another woman without his wife there, as described by a Washington Post profile. This statement proved very controversial as debate arose in favor and against such a seemingly antique rule. Causing further concern, a New York Times poll found that a large portion of the population is also uncomfortable with these opposite-sex one-on-one interactions.
There are perhaps as many reasons for this as there are people surveyed. As the recent hashtag #MeToo has shown, most women encounter unwanted sexual advances, and many of these happen in the workplace. This harassment, as well as wariness from male coworkers that they will be accused, is a major reason why this discomfort exists. Experiences people have had invisibly influence these survey results, as well as fears about incidents or accusations that might happen.
But the concern that is also often raised is that one-on-one meetings are crucial to careers. Holding back from trust-building interactions with coworkers can mean that women get fewer promotions or other opportunities. This is a common argument, but another piece of it that we also must remember is that there are many individuals who, in certain workplace interactions with certain coworkers, are not uncomfortable. Sexual harassment is widespread and women are all too likely to encounter it in the workplace, but women should also be able to meet privately with a male coworker (and vice versa) if they feel comfortable doing so. Just as protesters demand a woman’s right to choose when it comes to health, so should women be aware of harassment but able to meet with male coworkers if they so choose.
Of course, Pence is not placing formal restrictions on these kinds of meetings, but the discomfort he expresses can strengthen social norms that are even stronger than actual rules. We do need to meet those attitudes where they are—many women who have experienced or who fear harassment have reason to be uncomfortable, and aiming to curb sexual harassment in schools and work is what must be done if we hope to see different statistics. However, another thing we should be reminded of by the handmaids at the Marriott Tech Center is that women can decide for themselves. Until sexual harassment is not a daily concern in the workplace, women will be exercising discretion in interactions, but meetings with a trusted coworker of a different gender are not automatically inappropriate. Pence is hurting the chances of working women by thinking so, and this too is a stance worthy of resistance.