This ain't no disco, as the Talking Heads song goes, but I sometimes take requests – especially when they come from my wife.
"You ought to write about this," said the Missus, steaming over a debate that was heating up her social networks: Is it proper for a married man to eat a meal in the company of a woman who is not his wife?
Yes, as you may have heard by now, a Washington Post profile on Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, turned up a 15-year-old interview in which then-congressman Pence of Indiana made a startling revelation: He never eats alone with a woman other than his wife or attends events without her that feature alcohol.
For my wife, Pence's policy triggered memories of a state government official for whom she worked as a speechwriter. Whenever they were chauffeured from one event to another, he insisted that she ride in the back seat while he rode up front with the driver.
"People talk," he would say. Nothing personal, he said, but he didn't want any passers-by to see him cruising around town with a woman who was not his wife.
This double standard, which he did not practice with his male staffers, infuriated my wife, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. It surprised me, too, but having grown up as her boss had, in a small town where gossip was the leading form of local communication, I understood where he was coming from.
People do talk, I would agree, but how much should we care? Efforts to avoid the possibility of gossip should not require the certainty of unfairness.
Pence's dining policy didn't raise many eyebrows back in 2002. It was "typical Mike," say those who knew him. The proudly evangelical Pence often calls himself "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order." But now that he's the VP to President Donald Trump, the man who launched a million pussy-hat marchers, Pence's dining partner policy has ignited a new culture war along predictable battle lines.
Internet chatter stirred vigorous and furious debate about how gender works in the halls of political power. Conservatives saw a prudent policy by a heartwarmingly happy pair of parents. Feminists fumed at the implicit sexism of Pence's blanket discrimination against all women, however benevolent it may be. Late-night comedians mocked the vice president's supposed unwillingness to trust his own urges when alone with women.
Yet, at least two women who formerly worked for Pence defended him in commentaries.
"My work product determined my success -- not private dinners with the congressman," wrote one of them, Mary Vought, now president of Vought Strategies LLC, in a Washington Post op-ed. Looking back on her time as press secretary to the House Republican Conference under then-Chairman Pence, she said, "I don't consider it to be a period of missed opportunities."
But this controversy is bigger than Pence. It raises long-simmering questions about the many ways that cultural norms, traditions and attitudes can subtly work to elbow women out of the normal everyday circles of access and communications that can crack glass ceilings.
Pence's policy appears to be grounded in what is often called in evangelical circles the Billy Graham Rule. The famous evangelist came up with the ban on alone time with women among other behavioral guidelines in a 1948 meeting with his ministry team. They wanted reassure the faithful and the public that they would behave better on the preaching circuit than the Elmer Gantry stereotypes left behind by some other traveling evangelists.
But in today's world, rules intended to protect women from exploitation sometimes can make them vulnerable to discrimination. I am certain, by the way, that this discrimination can work in reverse. But even as women have moved upward in large numbers in recent decades, they remain too few to benefit much from discriminating against men, even if they wanted to.
Quite the opposite, many have been all the more sensitized as they move up the ranks to how pervasive sexist structures can be -- even on Capitol Hill. An anonymous 2015 National Journal survey of female staffers in Congress, also reported in The Atlantic, found that exclusion from one-on-one time with their male bosses was a "huge impediment to moving up."
Ironically, treating any employee differently on account of gender may be illegal under civil rights laws that Congress has passed. But with so many women equaling and often out-achieving men in colleges and the workplace, smart managers should not need legal action to tell them a simple, durable truth: No-girls-allowed policies and habits are bad for business.
Email Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.