Mike Pence has made some waves with some unearthed comments he made about never dining alone with a woman who’s not his wife. And not attending events where alcohol is served if his wife is not there, but other women are. The theory that “I respect my wife too much to do this” really strikes a positive chord with some people, I get that. But this reduces men and women, in whatever professional setting they are in, to animals incapable of restraining their need to sexualize every situation. I inserted myself into a lively Twitter discussion about this today, and some people I very much respect believe that it is most definitely wrong for co-workers of the opposite sex to do anything in a private setting, without other men or women around to “chaperone.” I respectfully disagree.
This kind of patriarchal thinking is one of the myriad ways that women are held back from rising in a corporate or, in the case of Pence, governmental setting. It’s a hurdle that is put up for women and not men. Imagine, if you will, you’re a young associate in a big firm where the need to be seen at internal and external social functions is crucial to your corporate mobility. Seeing clients at night, often for dinner or drinks, is also a huge part of your job, and if you’re not doing it, you will not only not get promoted, you may even lose your job. Now imagine that 75% of the people you are supposed to do this socializing with refuse to do so because you are a woman. By the way, I’m using 75% vs 50% because the higher up an organization one goes, the fewer women will be there, and it’s definitely the senior people one needs to be around in order to rise.
One of the many ways women are overlooked for senior positions evolves from this mindset that any male/female one-on-one interaction is inappropriate, thus there are no one-one-one interactions with the people (men) that matter most in deciding your career path. Of course no one is saying millions of men haven’t been guilty of making inappropriate comments or gestures towards female co-workers or subordinates. But this can happen in any setting, trust me. Like when a Partner at my firm had kept me waiting for a client meeting, he apologized by saying that he’d said to the other client, “I have to go, I have a hot blonde waiting for me in the lobby.”
I bring that up not for sympathy, but to show that garbage people don’t need to have you out for drinks to cross a line. Fortunately this was near the end of my career, when I’d already decided I was leaving and I could laugh it off. But prior to this instance, I had had far more immensely constructive interactions with the men I worked with and for, both on and off the trading desk. For example, my immediate boss always found a way to have one-on-one time with each of his many subordinates. In my case, he’d offer to give me—a working mom—a ride home, where I had 15 minutes of uninterrupted time with him, the man who held my career and compensation in his hands. That was priceless, and I would have been at a disadvantage if he (or I) refused to allow this because of what people might think seeing us in a car together.
I’m not saying that sometimes a “hey let’s grab drinks” won’t be construed the wrong way, or that things aren’t more likely to go awry if two people decide to leave their inhibitions at the door and get their drink on for hours. That’s something entirely different. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with a generic, one-on-one setting where colleagues or boss/employee can hash out things that are happening to them, their clients, their company. When women are locked out of this kind of informal discussion, they are kept from economic opportunity.
So please do continue to honor your spouse and your colleagues, but realize the very real impact a decision to do something for appearances’ sake can have on a person’s prospects for maximizing their career. Try to imagine what it must be like to constantly be on the outside when big decisions are being made. It matters to have a seat at that table.