Russell Simmons. Al Franken. Matt Lauer. Louis C.K. The Harvey Weinstein scandal has unfolded into a watershed moment for women's empowerment, sweeping across industries and knocking down the careers of powerful men like dominoes. The #MeToo movement has illuminated the scope of sexual harassment and assault, while touching on intersectional issues like the economics of power and consent, less-acknowledged patterns of male sexual abuse, and the racial blindness of white feminism (ahem, Lena Dunham).
In response to the #MeToo movement, some men have begun promoting the "Mike Pence Rule" as the answer. In short, the Pence rule is the refusal to walk, talk, sit or eat alone with female colleagues. This strategy is unfortunately not unique: a 2015 study suggests many men in positions of power avoid being alone with women, with some refusing to drive alone with females and others who won't take one-on-one or closed-door meetings with a woman.
Though the policy is potentially illegal on grounds of discrimination, men defend it as a practical strategy to avoid giving any "wrong impressions" of sexual interest.
Practical for those in positions of power, perhaps, but deeply damaging to women working in the same field. The premium on men renders junior male colleagues far less complicated mentees than their female counterparts, rewarded with infinitely more opportunities to get ahead.
Somehow, despite one in three women having been sexually harassed in the workplace, it is us who have been identified as the risk. Treating women as a potential liability punishes us for the transgressions of men, putting a professional handicap on those impacted rather than on those causing the problem.
Of course, some men have truly good intentions in using the rule. Pence himself says it's driven by faith and respect for his wife, while others argue the strategy is equally beneficial for the reputations and careers of women. And indeed some women may welcome the Pence rule: one survey found that junior women often avoid senior menin order to prevent any damaging rumors or misconceptions.
But this is arguably evidence of how women are forced to limit themselves in adapting to the workplace as it is, a practical defense mechanism to existing workplace cultures rather than an autonomous, value-based choice.
We should focus on normalizing professional male-female relationships, not perpetuating misogynistic norms.
In fact, the defense of the Pence rule as an attempt to "avoid rumors" is part of the problem. Casey Quinlan, writing in ThinkProgress, states, "What starts tongues wagging is not the actual fact of a man and a woman sitting alone together. It is the perpetuation of heterosexist assumptions about how men and women must interact."
We should focus on normalizing professional male-female relationships, not perpetuating misogynistic norms that suggest these relationships are inherently sexual.
It would make far more sense for men to sanction other men, especially those like Weinstein, who Hollywood continued to work with despite widespread knowledge of his behaviour. Perpetrators in various industries have been enabled by those who make no issue of allegations. Having a reputation for violence against women apparently hasn't been much of a professional hindrance, but it should be.
Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro recently called for a return to traditional gender roles and strict norms governing male-female interaction, arguing that men "left unchecked" will naturally treat women as sex objects. Similarly, radio host Joe Walsh claimed Pence's rule of "always having a witness" around women is simply an honest response to human nature.
Shapiro's suggestion that traditional gender roles prevent rape and sexual harassment is seriously misguided: on the contrary, in previous generations sexual assault was normalized both at home and at work in part by its lack of recognition under the law. For example, raping your own wife was not criminalized until the 1980s. (Shapiro also says that encouraging marriage prior to sexual activity provides "objective evidence for positive consent," seeming to forget about marital rape.)
As to "human nature," men should wholeheartedly reject such a boys will be boys argument. It's an insult to the majority of men to suggest they're incapable of being alone with women without falling prey to "human nature" in the form of serious sexual assault. Let's not portray the actions of men like Weinstein or Bill Cosby as somehow natural-but-misjudged bouts of attraction and desire, as if drugging and threatening women is a natural progression on the scale of flirtation and lust.
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Sexual assault is not a product of human nature, but rather its perversion. Far beyond the parameters of normal sexual behaviors, sexual assault is a sick, exploitative and predatory abuse of power.
In the United States, women currently make up only 6 per cent of CEOs, 22 per cent of legal partners, 6 per cent of partners in venture capital firms and 20 per cent of executives or senior-level management in tech industries.
The responsibility to shift the status quo falls on men, our allies, to use their positions of power productively, and to challenge norms by treating male-female relationships in the workplace as commonplace and professional, not problematic. The Pence rule only reinforces the system. The #MeToo movement is an opportunity to change it.
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