Mike Pence and his wife Karen. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia

A year ago, when the #MeToo movement was in full cry, someone brought up the “Pence rule”, a long-standing agreement between the US Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife Karen that he would not eat alone with any other woman, nor attend events featuring alcohol, without her by his side. If Harvey Weinstein had followed this rule, tweeted Sebastian Gorka, “none of those poor women would ever have been abused.”

Coming from a former Trump adviser this slightly smug suggestion was understandably greeted with scorn by feminists and there were claims that the rule would be illegal. In fact, it is realistic and practical, and certainly less time-consuming than anti-sexism seminars and the honing of complaints procedures.

Vox staff writer Tara Isabella Burton, however, declared the Pence rule “a completely self-serving maxim, designed to protect men against women, and not the other way around.” It penalised women for existing, and barred them from “interactions that might benefit them professionally.”

Lawyer Joanna L. Grossman, writing in the same outlet, said the rule was “clearly illegal” under anti-discrimination law when practised by a boss in an employment setting, “and deeply damaging to women’s employment opportunities.”

But, a year later, guess who is channelling Pence? In a story headed, “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost,” Bloomberg reports the word among the money men: “No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.”

It’s largely about risk management. Women have become risky to work with, especially in the upper levels of the finance industry where they become a diminishing minority. Separating the sexes to some degree seems the only solution to the fraught environment #MeToo has generated.

In a related development global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright is marketing “#MeToo” packages to employers aimed at protecting their businesses and reputations from damaging sexual harassment cases. Partner Sally Woodward told the Sydney Morning Herald it was not just about legal issues, but ensuring that “inappropriate behaviour doesn’t occur in the first place.”

But there’s a very wide range of “inappropriate behaviour” and, despite the #BelieveWomen campaign, women can occasionally resort to alternative facts. After decades of free and easy between the sexes, #MeToo has suddenly insisted on good behaviour, although there is no consensus about what that is.

Bloomberg interviewed 30 senior executives and found that many are “spooked by #MeToo and struggling to cope.” They admitted feeling uneasy about being alone with female colleagues, “particularly youthful or attractive ones, fearful of the rumour mill or … the potential liability.” Examples of changes include:

* A manager who won’t meet with female employees in a room without windows, and who keeps his distance in elevators

* A late 40-something, who, on the advice of his (attorney) wife, won’t have a business dinner with a woman 35 or under

* Women not invited to casual, after-work drinks; or “having what should be a private meeting with a boss with the door left wide open.”

Predictably, some women are not happy with these developments. The president of the Financial Women’s Association says it’s affecting women’s careers and they are “grasping for ideas on how to deal with it.” They are anxious about “the loss of male mentors who can help them climb the ladder,” because there aren’t enough women in senior positions “to bring along the next generation all by themselves.”

“Advancement typically requires that someone at a senior level knows your work, gives you opportunities and is willing to champion you within the firm,” says a female chief executive. “It’s hard for a relationship like that to develop if the senior person is unwilling to spend one-on-one time with a more junior person.”

Frankly, it’s hard to get one’s head around the mentoring thing. Does “one-on-one” time have to be secluded from colleagues? Can’t it take place in an office with an open door or with windows? Does it really require intimate lunches and dinners? Or travelling side by side?

Also, isn’t everyone working in a business entitled to help and encouragement from senior staff as a matter of course? And should they not be promoted on merit – on work well done and on having the personal qualities that a position requires? On what other basis would you want someone promoted?

And if there is something of a personal nature that a woman needs to hear, and there is a not another woman onsite to tell her, couldn’t someone in her professional association do the honours?

The fact is that the Pence approach is based on sexual realism and makes good sense as ground rules which remain flexible where necessary. Certainly, everyone needs to behave better, but this is easier when there is a little distance between colleagues. Moreover, the women who are complaining need to think about what, apart from the reputation of the compnay,  is at stake: not just the dignity and reputation of individuals, but their marriages and families.

It’s clear from #MeToo that, even as women have become numerically equal in the workforce and broken a few glass ceilings, workplace familiarity has bred a certain contempt in some men. Others now feel that they must protect themselves from rumour and allegations. A certain professional distance between the sexes seems the obvious remedy, and Wall Street, for once, has got it right.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet