Here's why powerful women don't use the 'Mike Pence rule.' Spoiler alert: They can't.

'Pence Rule' supporters see it as a shield of honor for powerful men. But if high-ranking women tried to deploy the rule? They'd get ridiculed.

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Vice President Mike Pence and wife Karen at the Carondelet Palace in Quito, Ecuador on June, 28 2018.

Glenda Ritz never thought about adopting the "Mike Pence Rule" during her four years as Indiana public schools' chief. And even if she'd wanted to, she couldn't have: "It's totally impractical."

Pence Rule, part A: Don't travel or dine alone with a person of the opposite sex who isn't your spouse.

A male driver transported Ritz to schools around the state. She and her chief of staff — a man — had weekly closed-door lunches in her office to discuss confidential matters.

Pence Rule, part B: Don't attend functions that serve alcohol without your spouse by your side.

"There aren't a lot of functions you can attend that don't have alcohol, and I don't drink alcohol," said the former state superintendent, now president and CEO for Advancing Public Schools. 

Plus: "My husband would probably have a fit if I said, 'Hey, I have to go to all these functions and I need you to come,' " Ritz said. "He would be like, 'What?' " 

The double standard of the Pence rule

The Pence rule is circulating again, this time as an antidote to serial groping. If only Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill had brought his wife to the party at AJ's Lounge on March 15 and pinned a marriage-police badge to her lapel, it has been argued, he wouldn't stand accused of inappropriately touching a state lawmaker and three legislative staffers. Hill has denied the claims.

Last year, the news media widely reported that Pence and his wife, Karen, use a version of what used to be known as the "Billy Graham" rule — the late evangelist didn't travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than his wife.

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Supporters of the rule see it as a shield of honor for powerful married men who have a lot to lose.

But if ambitious women tried to deploy the rule? They'd face ridicule and judgment. (So would their husbands.) They'd kill their careers. 

How we would react if women CEOs attempted this

Imagine if Mary Barra, president and CEO of General Motors Company, announced she would decline all invitations to cocktail receptions unless her husband, Anthony, a consultant, can accompany her. (Barra, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request, citing the volume of media requests she receives.) 

Or if Betty Cockrum, when she worked as Bloomington city controller, insisted on bringing her husband to lunch to meet with wealthy entrepreneur Bill Cook's second-in-command, to discuss downtown development.

Can Mary not handle her liquor?

Can Betty not make decisions without her husband's input?

Can either of these women effectively run major government offices or multi-billion-dollar corporations? 

"It would make it look like she couldn't trust her own self-management and so needed other arbitrary rules and 'accountability' partners to keep her behavior in line," said Brenda R. Weber, professor and chair of the department of gender studies at Indiana University. 

The Pence rule also assumes there's a spouse always available, and willing, to serve as a drop-in watchdog to make sure nothing weird happens. 

"It's one thing for a VP to tell a woman his wife will be joining them," said Cockrum, who spent 29 years in state and city government and who retired last year as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky. "Does anybody really believe it's the same for a woman who holds office, or is in a position of authority, to tell a male seeking her time that she'll have to check her husband's schedule?" 

And, as Glenda Ritz noted, how many events these days are booze-free? You can't even take a Zumba class in 2018 without someone trying to pour wine down your throat. 

High-ranking women who enact the Pence rule would be accused of hatching corporate covens that exclude men. That would just backfire, anyway, because men still hold the vast majority of senior executive positions. 

TOP LEFT: President and CEO for Advancing Public Schools Glenda Ritz (Jenna Watson/IndyStar)
TOP RIGHT: Interim President for the Arts Council of Indianapolis Shannon Linker (Photo courtesy of Muncie Arts and Culture Council)
BOTTOM RIGHT: CEO of Integrating Women Leaders Kim Graham Lee (Photo courtesy of Integrating Women Leaders)
BOTTOM LEFT: Former CEO of Planned Parenthood Betty Cockrum (Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)

Pence rule would be an ‘advancement destroyer’

And what about the talented junior woman who might want to avoid working, dining or traveling alone with senior men, because she wants to protect her image and her marriage? 

She would isolate herself from those crucial social networks where connections and decisions are made. 

"I would never have adopted any sort of rule that would limit my ability to do my job or learn and grow," said Shannon Linker, interim president for the Arts Council of Indianapolis. "Women are put into precarious positions throughout their careers and to add self-imposed limits like the Pence rule would be an advancement destroyer."

Kim Graham Lee, CEO of Integrating Women Leaders, said she worked hard as a young professional to “be at the right place” where decisions were made. She played tennis in college, but once in the workforce took up golf. She invited herself to events and meetings. For her, workplace equality comes down to trust and respect. 

“Even in recent years leading an organization, I agreed to meet a male CEO of the parent company at Blend Cigar Bar,” she said. “It wasn’t my first choice as a location for a couple of reasons, but it worked for him.”

When I reached out to several prominent women leaders in Indianapolis to talk about the "Pence rule in reverse," a few declined to comment because they didn't want to be part of "political" conversations.

#MeToo era pushes women away even more

But this isn't about politics. The Pence rule re-enforces retrograde ideas that pit men and women as adversaries — man as hard-wired predator with a corner office, woman as pre-naked temptress crouching behind every off-site cash bar.

And one of the insidious twists of the #MeToo era is that more male managers are seeing value in keeping women at arm's length. One in six men now say they are hesitant to mentor a woman, according to an early 2018 survey by Lean In, the organization founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and Survey Monkey. 

Senior men are 3.5 times more likely to feel hesitant to have dinner alone with a junior woman than with a junior man and are 5 times more likely to feel hesitant to travel for work alone with a junior woman.

In a 2002 interview with The Hill, Pence characterized his strategy as "building a zone around your marriage." It’s also a way for men to build zones around their privileged positions.

And that becomes especially clear when you flip the script.

Amanda Kingsbury is an editor and writer at The Indianapolis Star, where this column first appeared. You can follow her Twitter: @akingsbury


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