Keep Your Pence On

Written by Miriam Gross on . Posted in Features

The Vice President’s commitment to “building a zone” around his marriage has sparked a larger conversation about men and women in the workplace.

“If there’s alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me.” This quote from Vice President Mike Pence, featured in a 2002 article by Beltway publication The Hill, was recently referenced in the Washington Post’s profile of America’s Second Lady, Karen Pence:


“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,” the Washington Post article read.

It was only sentence, but it drew a lot of attention and commentary.

Not surprisingly, opinions were mostly divided along political lines, with both sides making assumptions about the applications and intentions of Pence’s statement. Pence’s detractors pointed out that he would not be able to meet with female heads of state, and that his policy would exclude women from important career-advancing opportunities. Pence’s supporters were quick to defend his right to a code of ethics and integrity that he found meaningful. Pence himself has not commented on nor clarified the details of his personal practices and the widely-presumed set of intentions guiding them.

If the professional workplace standard is to conduct business over dinner, to dine exclusively with only one gender does enter into the realm of gender discrimination. According to former Pence employee Mary Vaught, however this was not an issue for Pence at the time of his statements in 2002:

“He wasn’t having private dinners much at all. He had children at home, so as often as possible, after voting and his daily duties, he’d race home to share a meal with ... his family,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post following the Karen Pence profile. “Frankly, he modeled for male and female staffers alike that it was possible to serve in a public role with excellence while being wholly dedicated to his family.” 

Pence also told The Hill in their 2002 article that he often refused dinner or cocktail invitations from male colleagues. “It’s about building a zone around your marriage,” he was quoted as saying. “I don’t think it’s a predatory town, but I think you can inadvertently send the wrong message by being in [certain] situations.”

Whether you like Pence, or hate him, he confronts a real issue in the professional world.

In the context of Judaism, the laws of yichud (seclusion) offer an example of a values-based framework for “appropriate” behavior. Men and women are seen in the eyes of the laws of yichud as equally if differently tempted, and equally vulnerable to character assassination. For example, a widow is advised not to hire a male servant, for the explicit fear that people will gossip that she is using the relationship inappropriately. There is recognition of an unequal power dynamic and concern that illicit sexual behavior should not transpire, but the greater concern is for establishing an environment where reputations are preserved. Ultimately, these laws are formulated to create a more smoothly-functioning community.

“From a halachic perspective, VP Pence’s practice is not mandated, but our tradition has created certain safeguards, such as yichud, preferring that we err on the side of caution,” said Rabbi Chaim Motzen, senior rabbi at Ner Tamid Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland. “Challenging at times? Yes. Too puritanical to some? Sure. But [it’s] an area of life where the alternative has catastrophic consequences.”

Really? “My two-word response would be Bill O’Reily,” said Rabbi Motzen. Reported allegations against the former Fox News personality include precisely the type of settings — a one-on-one dinner with a female staff member in a hotel restaurant, for instance — that Pence avoids. The Pence model of behavior of may be old-fashioned, and problematic through a gender discrimination lens, but it does reflect a real concern.

A 2010 study from the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy) found that “nearly two-thirds of men in senior positions pulled back from one-on-one contact with junior female employees because of fear of being suspected of having an affair. Meanwhile, half of junior women reported being nervous about one-on-one contact with senior men for the same reason.”

These findings suggest that it is concern for one’s reputation rather than actual temptation or fear of infidelity that motivates gender segregation in the workplace. According Sharon Benus, chairperson and co-founder of IMPAQ International in Columbia, Maryland, gender exclusion is less common in companies where the corporate culture emanating from the top emphasizes trust in its employees and values proven ability and hard work.

Prior to founding IMPAQ, Benus served for more than 25 years in various senior management positions in state government, at University of Maryland, and in the private sector. She attributes the equal-opportunity environment in her 400-person company to intentional modeling and clear expectations.

Every meeting offers multiple opportunities for one participant to set the tone, said Jill Green, Assistant Dean of University of Baltimore Law School. Real power is vested in the one who seizes these moments, and she recommended setting personal policies that make it clear that the encounter is one of a professional nature with social overtones, rather than the other way around. This as an integral part of being an effective female professional, she said, and these standards are equally beneficial to men and women.

Amy (last name withheld at her request) started her career at a large investment bank, and is now chief operating officer of a fund managed by one of her former clients. An Orthodox Jew, Amy found her own way to balance personal and religious standards with the pressures of her work environment: “[instead of] pushing my career ahead by going out with my coworkers for drinks, I focused on being an expert in my field, by becoming the person that coworkers and clients needed to call regardless of whether or not we socialized,” she said.

There are many ways to the top, said Amy. A fanatical sports fan and a boss who shares the same fanaticism will have more to talk about, allowing them to interact more, for example. Such face-time, if well-managed, can be a path to promotions and opportunities. Ultimately, however, professionalism and a strong work ethic have the power to level all playing fields in the corporate environment, regardless of gender, she said.

In her Washington Post op-ed, Vaught, made the following observation: “With his choice about how to divide up his time, Pence made a strong statement about work-life balance, the importance of family time and respect in the workplace: values we can all get behind.”

One potential positive outcome of the controversy around Pence’s comments would be to prompt couples to weigh the impact of their presence at the business dinner table versus the family dinner table. Numerous studies cite family dinners as a primary force in building a strong marriage instilling self-confidence and resilience in children. On the other hand, the lurking sexism and distorted values of this after-hours business dinner culture are not serving women or men well.

By focusing on fidelity, Pence’s previous statements and the discussion around them fail to address the other problems that arise if workplace boundaries are left ambiguous.

It is easy to applaud Pence’s dedication to his protecting his marriage and integrity and draw parallels between his very Halacha-esque “building a zone” concept and the Jewish laws regarding yichud. Pence has drawn fervent defenders because his statements reflect a stand for values in the face of a professional culture that demands allegiance to self-advancement over personal dignity and work over family. Politics aside, some well-thought out and clearly expressed personal boundaries could be what our society needs in order to confront real issues facing women and men in the workplace.

By Miriam Gross

Rebbetzin Miriam Gross lives in Baltimore, and studies Jewish Law at Yeshivat Maharat. She works as the engagement coordinator at The Darrell D. Friedman Institute for Professional Development, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.