by Carly Priest, Opinions Editor
Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran a profile of Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence. The author, Ashley Parker, detailed the minute, quirky, and even charming details of their marriage— according to a family friend, Mike Pence proposed to Karen Pence as the two fed ducks, hiding an engagement ring and a small bottle of champagne inside loaves of bread for her to find as they tore off pieces for the birds. Another friend reported they later shellacked the bread as a sentimental keepsake from the day. Cute, right?
The Post article, called “Karen Pence is the vice president’s ‘prayer warrior,’ gut check and shield” also discussed the less-glamorous realities of the couple’s relationship practices. In line with their evangelical Christian faith, Mike and Karen Pence abstain from situations they feel may lead to adulterous behaviors and/or sinful thoughts. In a 2002 interview with The Hill, Pence told reporters he does not dine with women unless Karen attends, and avoids events where alcohol is served when she cannot accompany him. The Hill article recently resurfaced on the internet to intense backlash, but also some praise. Mollie Hemingway, The Federalist, called Mike Pence a “smart man who understands that infidelity is something that threatens every marriage and must be guarded against.” The National Inquirer lauded the couple with a hearty “good for the vice-president,” while (unsurprisingly) left-leaning outlets waged a firestorm on Twitter. Truthfully, I’m not all that surprised by the Pence’s personal rules regarding opposite-sex fraternization— many of the more orthodox religious groups in the world adhere to similar (if not relatively harsher) social codes that limit interactions between the sexes. Moreover, I feel it may be worthwhile to note that for all the sensational reports speculating the content of the Vice President and his First Lady’s marriage, the Pences appear two happy, consenting adults in a partnership that works for them. As long as they do not harm others, the Pence family should live their private lives as they see fit without public scrutiny— to each their own. If Pence decides to follow the “Billy Graham rule” (named for the fundamentalist preacher, Billy Graham, and outlined in the Modesto Manifesto) he should.
In his personal life.
In their non-professional lives, I respect the right of Michael and Karen Pence to live whatever married life they choose (given their past comments about marriage, I’m not sure they would say the same for everyone). However, when Mike Pence blurs the line between his personal and professional life while at work to allow his personal life dictate over the manner in which he treats women in his professional life, he unfairly restricts the professional opportunities available to women who work in his office. I chose to write this article because though I would not work for Mike Pence, I am unable to benignly nod and say, “oh, that must be tough for the women who work in his office.” The “Pence problem” (as I shall henceforth term it) is not an issue exclusive to Pence. It exists all over the halls of Congress and precludes the exclusion of qualified women from future careers in government. I’m unable to look the other way as the Pence problem persists because it is so very wrong. So, I decided I should fight against it.
Since I’m all about Pence separating his personal and professional life, I will look at his refusal to dine alone with a female colleague through a professional lens. When Mike Pence will not dine alone with a female member of staff in a crowded, public restaurant but does with equal-ranking members of male staff, Pence acts unprofessionally. In his refusal to include women at dinner, or lunch, or coffee, Pence restricts women from the same professional mentoring network and networking relationships he concurrently extends to male members of staff. I’m curious if there are any women for whom Pence would bend his rule—a female Chief of Staff, or a world leader, perhaps? Jokes and meals aside, Pence’s reluctance to work with women as he does with men extends well beyond dinner. In an interview Pence gave the Indy Star, he spoke of his Congressional requirement that: “any aide who had to work late to assist him be male.” I’m deeply troubled by such flagrant discrimination which so restricts female professional advancement. Here’s how those repercussions can play out: last night, the male aide stayed late and the female aide went home. Today, the boss invited the male aide into a meeting because he stayed late and knew the material, while the female aide works the front desk. As a National Journal survey of female staffers on the Hill concluded: for these women, the lack of access has meant an additional hurdle in their attempts to do their jobs, much less further their own careers. And in many instances, it forced them to seek employment in other…offices.” Though Pence may be a repeat offender in his practice of excluding women from subtle career advancement opportunities, he remains far from the only one. The same National Journal report outlined a trend in the exclusion of women on the Hill so pervasive even male staffers: “[recalled] female aides barred from solo meetings with the boss… [these same male staffers recalled having] benefited in some instances from the exclusion of their female colleagues in high-level meetings, at receptions with major Washington powerbrokers, and just in earning a little more face time with their bosses.” Though it is illegal under the Equal Pay Act to pay women and men different wages for the same work, as Pence and other political actors continue to restrict the social currency of their female employees, they limit them from career advancement and mentorship opportunities.
There are significant economic impacts when those in power restrict the flow of social currency to women. As of 2016, just twenty-four of all Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs. There also emerges a troubling power balance in our political affairs: in the example of Congress alone, women hold a combined 105 seats (out of 535) in the House and Senate, though women make up roughly 50% of the U.S. population. Well before the end of the day, those subtle opportunities disproportionately offered to white men over every other group— in networking, mentorship, and career development— add up. If Pence and other elected officials (Democrats and Republicans alike) consistently cannot separate their personal lives from their careers to extend equal opportunity to all their employees, we must demand a radical new system. Honestly, let’s just pack the halls with women.
Photo Credit: Google Images