The US Vice-President’s view of women as potential sexual threats has made the lives of those working in the political trenches infinitely more difficult.
Let me start by giving kudos to Mike Pence for honouring his marriage and prioritizing his family. That’s rare enough in political life to be worthy of admiration and particular note.
But a recent Washington Post profile of the Vice-President’s wife, Karen, highlighted a less admirable side of his family values: “he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife.” The “Mike Pence rule,” under which no married, male political figure should ever find himself alone with a female of our species, is the most discouraging and disheartening news in a very long while for women who aspire to political jobs.
In our current Parliament, women hold 26 percent of the available seats. From my observations, women occupy a similar proportion of political staffing roles, though the rate is often much lower in senior, director-level roles. The current government and its predecessor have made proactive efforts to address this imbalance, using various approaches, but the realm of Canadian politics is still very much a male-dominated one.
Why is this a problem? Plenty of studies show a correlation between company profitability and the presence of women in senior management roles and a diversity of voices and perspectives in the boardroom. The same holds true for government: governments function better, responding to and representing Canadians more effectively, when women are involved in senior roles. Women’s skills and perspectives are critical when developing policy for a population that is 50.4 percent female, or when communicating decisions to women. Our federal public service does a good job of reflecting our country’s demographics, at least in its gender composition, but our political systems do not.
There are a number of reasons for the existing imbalance: the old boys’ networks that underlie political party structures, the itinerant lifestyle and long hours that make accommodation of family needs difficult, the aggressive pursuit of power and competitive advantage that attracts a certain type of personality arguably found less commonly among women — but no matter the reason, underrepresentation of women does not serve our country or its citizens well. We will be better governed when we have a government that accurately reflects the makeup of our population.
Against this backdrop, the Mike Pence rule makes the recruitment of female political staff even more difficult and places current female staff who work for male ministers or members of Parliament in an impossible position. Political staff are required as a matter of course to talk with their ministers alone in any number of contexts, whether advising them in advance of Question Period or a cabinet committee meeting, or running through anticipated questions with them prior to a press conference, or debriefing after a meeting with constituents or stakeholders. And they are often the only people traveling with ministers as they cross the country making announcements and meeting with Canadians.
Never once did it occur to me that I represented a potential threat to the integrity of a male minister’s personal life.
As a senior female staffer to ministers both provincially and federally, I was often the only woman in meetings, including budget meetings, and I worked alone with ministers on countless occasions for a variety of reasons. Never once did it occur to me that I represented a potential threat to the integrity of a male minister’s personal life and, thankfully, never once did it occur to a male minister to insist that a male staffer should accompany me whenever I needed to meet with him.
It’s worth noting that no professional woman could get away with setting a rule like this in the corporate world. The demographic reality in any primarily male industry would make it impossible, even if it weren’t prima facie ludicrous for a woman to insist that she could maintain a proper relationship with her husband only by conducting the entirety of her work life in group settings.
The other reality — and large irony — is that in the male-dominated political domain, women are more likely to be targets than predators. In fact, in the occasionally toxic, often alcohol-fuelled environment of Parliament Hill, younger women in particular can become the unwilling objects of inappropriate or illegal behaviour by men occupying more senior roles, as recently described in eye-opening detail by former Hill staffer Beisan Zubi.
As it stands, then, women can’t win for losing: they are simultaneously potential sexual threats who must be avoided at all costs, at least by Pence’s definition, and convenient sexual prey to be hunted down and harassed.
By sending the signal — from the office of the Vice President of the United States, no less — that interaction with women should be carefully circumscribed, Mike Pence has made it much more likely that women will be excluded from important political roles, passed over when hiring decisions are made and treated with suspicion in professional contexts. In short, he has made the lives of women labouring in the political trenches infinitely more difficult.
The truth as I see it is this: if Mike Pence cannot trust himself in the presence of women who are not his wife, or if he cannot protect his marriage adequately while treating women as equal participants and partners in the modern-day political arena, then he ought not to be entrusted with high-level political positions where he represents and makes decisions on behalf of millions of women every day.
And in the vein of Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, whose International Women’s Day message urging women to “celebrate the boys and men in our lives” was correct in sentiment, if misplaced in timing, let me thank the men in high-ranking political roles — including former Prime Minister Harper — who have seen me as neither predator nor target, as neither perpetrator nor victim, but as a political asset alone.
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