It has been a full week since I read the Washington Post political profile on Second Lady Karen Pence. The article sent shockwaves through many of my circles for one particular revelation. That bombshell? That the vice president of the United States will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife. As a business traveler, I found myself wondering – could I hypothetically travel with Mike Pence – or someone else like him, without it adversely affecting my career development?
It’s not a question of politics, but one of practicality. As a road warrior – and a female who has many male colleagues and clients – could I travel with Mike Pence and still do my job?
The non-partisan issue
My social media feeds have lit up around this topic over the past week. I’ve seen two very strong camps form pondering this question.
One opinion asserts this is an antiquated viewpoint that objectifies women. Further, it puts them at a disadvantage in business by not affording them the same opportunity to network, be mentored, or entertain clients.
The other opinion stresses the importance of avoiding impropriety – and treating ALL interactions between men and women the same to avoid any inadvertent misunderstandings.
On both sides, the fur has flown. And along the way, I’ve been forced to think through some of my road warrior experiences.
Traveling with men
Initially, I thought the idea that Pence would refuse to dine alone with a woman was ridiculous and dated. Who does that?
Many men, if my social media feeds are any indicator.
Several who weighed in were able to name at least one man they know who follows that rule. Some men limit that to friends; others to colleagues or clients as well. One stated that he was worried about claims of sexual harassment. Another thought he might be spotted by a neighbor who would gossip. A few said it would be inappropriate based on their personal beliefs, religious or moral.
I started to think about my work experiences. In the past, for example, my female colleagues and I observed a male colleague who had exhibited similar patterns. When traveling with another female, there was always an excuse to beg out of the normal collegial dinner – a late evening conference call to take or a pressing deadline an old friend to catch up with. The women thus found themselves dining solo. But when traveling with men, that same colleague always planned dinners or other outings that were later discussed back in the office. Over time we recognized a pattern with him and realized that he was not the only one who sometimes behaved this way. Yet, because it was outside official working hours, nothing could be done and no one wanted to force the issue. Unequal access continued.
The real question that looms is whether when you travel with Mike Pence – or someone like him – and you are a female, do you get the same opportunities to network or be mentored and develop collegial relationships? Or do you find yourself at a disadvantage over time? I can’t help but think of how much of my own professional development time – both giving and receiving – has occurred in these informal settings and the opportunity cost is extensive.
Those solo dinners
On the flip side, when women are denied the opportunity to dine with colleagues, they are often forced to dine alone. That often means either eating in one’s hotel room or dining alone in a restaurant or hotel bar. Those solo dinners expose the other side of misogyny.
I actually love the concept of eating at the hotel bar. It should be great. I don’t have to worry about leaving the hotel and I can charge my food to the room and earn extra points. There is no need to drive and I can ride the elevator back when I’m done. They have free WiFi and I can even take my laptop or tablet with me. And frankly, many hotel restaurants serve excellent food. Hotel bars are awesome – in theory.
What is not awesome is the mistaken impression that some men have that every woman dining solo at the hotel bar is there to pick up a man. I won’t pass judgment on those that are – and I have truly seen it all in my years of business travel – but to believe that women have no other purpose for being there brings us back to inequality again.
Sometimes a woman just wants to eat dinner. And when that is the case, she doesn’t want to be forced to go beyond polite conversation if she isn’t interested in continuing to talk to you (and would rather read her book). She doesn’t want to be cat-called or touched inappropriately. And she doesn’t want to have to guard her drink lest you try to slip something in it. She doesn’t want a guy to try to read her room number on her credit card slip (or worse for a bartender to be indiscrete enough to ask her to say it out loud in front of a creepy guy). Nor does she want to be followed to the elevator. She doesn’t want to be slipped your room key either.
That’s where the line gets blurred on both sides of this and women lose either way. Because sometimes dinner is just dinner – whether it is between two opposite sex colleagues sitting at a table in a restaurant or between two strangers dining solo at a bar. The idea that a business dinner in 2017 will naturally lead to indiscretion is just as inappropriate as the thought that dining at a hotel bar will automatically lead to sexual assault. When it does, it’s a matter of impulse control, not policy. That’s not good business – that’s personal.
I want to be able to travel with Mike Pence (or a colleague like him) and just eat dinner. I want to be able to have the same opportunity to talk business (or baseball) that the guys do over a steak or burger at the end of the day. Or not. But I should have a say in how that goes down. And it shouldn’t be arbitrary.
I want to be able to travel with Mike Pence and have some say in how that goes for me. But in some cases, I simply can’t.