A majority of women think it's 'inappropriate' to dine alone with a man. Given what we know about workplace harassment, can we really blame them?by Barbara Speed / July 4, 2017 / Leave a comment
I’ll start by saying I think Mike Pence has a point.
When it emerged in March that the US Vice President won’t go for dinner or an event alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, especially if alcohol was involved, the hot takes were unstoppable. This, we declared, was the problem with right-wing men. They wouldn’t include women at work events, because they couldn’t trust themselves to be alone with them. And women’s careers suffered as a result.
But this week, the New York Times has revealed that a majority of Americans basically agree with him. In a survey of just over 5,000 registered voters, the Times found that 53 per cent of women thought it would be ‘inappropriate’ to have dinner alone with a member of the opposite sex. Forty-five per cent of men agreed.
Having a drink was even worse: only 29 per cent of women thought this was appropriate, while, again, men were more balanced at 41 per cent appropriate and 48 per cent inappropriate.
The survey complicates what Pence said. Now we know this view is not one held by a single man whose closest colleague apparently grabs womens’ genitals for fun, it shows that the message isn’t as simple as “uh, sexism”. Put simply, Mike Pence may want to avoid dining with women—but many women don’t want to meet him for pizza and conservative chitchat either.
Putting the results in context
While some commenters were shocked at how widespread Pence’s opinions are, the results shouldn’t actually surprise us, given one of our society’s favourite questions is ‘Can men and women ever be just friends?’ That question asks whether platonic relationships between men and women are possible without sexual feelings getting in the way. All Pence has done is extend this to the workplace, and give his answer: no. It’s offensive—but by that measure, so, frankly, is One Day.
It is also important to consider the responses—particularly the women’s—in context. Puritanical as they may seem, they also make sense when we consider the possibility that the workplace is now, in some, privileged cases, the first place where sexism really hits home. On paper, women now thrive in most educational spaces, and it’s conceivable that a woman could get to her first job without experiencing daily, institutionalized sexism.
In a Salon piece ahead of last year’s US presidential election, Hana Schank infuriated Millenial women by suggesting that young women weren’t so bothered about a female candidate because they hadn’t yet hit the kind of sexism that would make a female president seem necessary:
“I suspect that the millennial women who are supporting Bernie may simply not have gotten to a place in life where they’ve experienced this kind of chronic, internalized, institutional sexism.”
Hard to hear—but also hard to argue with. At the sharp end of this sexism lies the fact that half of UK women have been sexually harassed at work.
Where harassment happens
The key nuance in the Times’s results for me, though, was between actual meetings and social events. Drinks and dinner—largely inappropriate. But an encounter specifically framed as a work meeting was appropriate for 63 per cent of women, and 66 per cent for men.
This rings true. The women I know who have experienced physical sexual harassment at work generally weren’t grabbed by the photocopier or called in for a private meeting in a wood-panelled office, Mad Men-style. It happened at the mixer, the drinks, the work dinner. These women wouldn’t fight to go to a private dinner with a male colleague any more than Mike Pence’s wife would—and not because they worry that they might behave inappropriately. It’s at these events that problematic things happen, away from the strip lights and HR departments of the office itself.
This concern is reflected in popular culture. In my family, a groan goes up whenever a character in a film coughs. In real life, people cough all the time—but in a film, it means they are 100 per cent going to die, probably within the next 20 minutes.
I think of that when I see men and women alone on screen, particularly at work. Those interactions often go without a hitch in the real world, but on screen it’s mere moments before someone makes a move, and professionalism goes out the window. (Lena Dunham played with this brilliantly in Girls, when, in a meeting with her older male boss, Hannah takes off her top while he looks on, bewildered and increasingly panicked. He, it seems, is fine with questionable sexual dynamics in the workplace—but only up to a point.)
The violin I’ll get out for them is far smaller, but these situations are also confusing for men in positions of power. Are they expected to flirt and make vaguely sexist comments to lighten the tone, as they’ll have seen older colleagues doing? What if something happens and she reports it? What on earth are the rules at these events at which personal bonding is meant to result in professional progression?
Unblurring the lines
Here comes the fun police: these events need to be better managed by HR, and be surrounded by a better understanding of their purpose. Because if men and women still admit they find it hard to interact in an “appropriate” way (to borrow the language of the survey), success at work can’t be allowed to depend on the bonds forged around drinking, ‘banter’, or heaven forbid, a visit to a strip club.
The boundaries need to be clearer, so that no one is left waiting for the cough—that dreaded, cliched, inevitable moment when the work dinner turns out not to be a work dinner at all. You’re trapped, stuck with a forced laugh and another glass of wine, keeping quiet afterwards so you aren’t the one who’s no fun, who can’t take a joke, who can’t be left alone with a male colleague.