I was reading recent press coverage about Vice President Pence’s adherence to the “Billy Graham rule.” I’d never heard it by this name, but it is a man’s position that he will not eat or work late with a female aid (or attend an event where alcohol is served unless his wife is with him). I had assumed this “rule” had gone by the wayside since I first entered the corporate world. Back then, I was told that one particular executive at the company would not have lunch with me and insisted that his office door remain open when meeting with a woman colleague! And another bragged to me about this line he drew, thinking I would admire his virtue. This recent focus on Pence revels that rule persists.
Opinions about Pence flew. Some said the Pences have every right to establish such guidelines. Some thought it makes sense as a way to avoid sexual attraction or the appearance of impropriety. Some felt the rule stereotypes women as sexual temptresses rather than peers with good ideas. Others noted the obstacle this rule imposes on women. Jill Filipovic, who had an experience like I did, noted that,
“[A]fter-work dinners and drinks are where meetings are routinely held, strategies are hashed out, career advice is doled out, information is shared, and relationships are built. If men like Pence won’t engage with women one-on-one in informal settings, it’s the women who miss out.”
Olga Khazan chimed in with studies showing how women are disadvantaged: “Without access to beneficial friendships and mentor relationships with executive men, women won’t be able to close the gender gap that exists in most professions.”
I saw this as an obstacle back in my corporate days. I felt excluded and handicapped. I knew I had to find ways to build comfortable relationships with my peers and seniors (at that time, all male) while avoiding discomfort or innuendo. Since apparently this issue persists, here are some ideas I gathered over my career:
- You can ignore the “rule” and behave (professionally) just as you do with others. That’s how I handled the colleague I’d been told avoided closed-door meetings. I pretended I didn’t know he had this rule. I marched in his office and closed the door! I figured he’d learn that professionalism and business can occur behind a closed door.
- A woman colleague of mine shared that, when she had dinner with her boss, she always had papers on the table, advertising that it was a business meeting.
- You can always invite along others so long as the goal is just getting to know someone and not to have career-enhancing business conversations.
- You can address it head on. When the man bragged about the virtue of this rule, I pointed out its consequences and unequal impact. I encouraged him to protect his virtue but be sure to find ways to support women who worked with him.
How do you react to the “Billy Graham rule”? What ideas do you have for women to overcome the exclusionary impact of the rule?