Keep the door ajar and the shades up. Invite a third person to a work lunch or dinner. Hold meetings in a glass-walled conference room. Avoid one-on-one interactions altogether.
These are all tactics Utahns told The Salt Lake Tribune they use at work when they may be alone with a man or a woman other than their spouse.
A new Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows some men and women struggle to share social spaces — and it may have an impact on women’s ability to perform and advance in the workplace.
Most Utahns said they think it’s inappropriate for a man to have a drink or dinner alone with a woman who is not his spouse or vice versa, while smaller numbers of people think eating lunch, riding in a car together or having a business meeting is inappropriate, the poll shows.
Claudia Geist, an assistant professor of gender studies at the University of Utah, said she was surprised men and women answered similarly in the survey, which she noted could point to the centrality of marriage in Utah, where the Mormon church holds significant sway.
“I would have expected greater gender differences, but there seems to be a lot of agreement,” she said. “It’s almost sort of a puritan idea of the separation of the sexes, which I find worrisome — even somewhat disturbing. It means that people don’t relate to each other just as another individual.”
The poll questions were identical to those used in a The New York Times national survey in May, which was based on a past comment from Vice President Mike Pence, who said he doesn’t eat alone with any woman other than his wife. Dan Jones & Associates conducted the Tribune-Hinckley statewide survey of 614 registered voters from July 18-20. The overall poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.95 percentage points.
The two surveys show many of the same trends, though Utahns were more likely to say a business meeting was appropriate than respondents in the national poll.
Also, about 60 percent of men and women in Utah said that lunch was appropriate. That’s higher than the national figure. About 43 percent of women and 52 percent of men surveyed in the national poll said lunch with a man or woman other than a spouse was OK.
Geist says the difference between the Utah poll and the national poll may be that Utahns are more likely to draw a line between daytime and nighttime activities.
“People have these strong guidelines in their lives, especially if they are religious,” she said. “And maybe that’s where they draw the line that it’s aboveboard.”
The Utah poll found that the oldest people, conservatives and those who are active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were more likely to find such one-on-one interactions problematic.
Only 14 percent of “very active” Utah Mormons believed it was appropriate for a man and a woman who are not married to have a drink together — Latter-day Saints, of course, are taught to eschew alcohol — while 38 percent of inactive Mormons were OK with that. Big majorities of Catholics, Protestants and those who said they had no religion found such a meeting to be appropriate.
Most practicing Mormons also frowned on a man and a woman who are not married having dinner together, with only 22 percent saying such an activity is appropriate.
“Utah Mormons don’t really have happy hours,” said Renae Cowley, a lobbyist in Salt Lake City. “Evenings are pretty sacred.”
Cowley said she understands why men and women said they feel so strongly that a night meeting or dinner is worrisome.
“Perhaps if they ran into someone from their ward [an LDS congregation] or neighborhood, or in their industry, they might feel like they might have to make an excuse, or rationalize the situation,” Cowley said.
Very active Mormons were more divided on a man and woman who are not married having lunch together, with 47 percent labeling it inappropriate and 44 percent stating otherwise.
Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler, like Pence, said he tries to avoid any one-on-one meeting — at any time of the day — with a woman other than his wife of more than 25 years, Elizabeth. He also said he tries to have meetings in a public place.
“I’m probably just a little bit old-fashioned,” the Woods Cross Republican said.
There were big partisan splits in the Utah poll. Only 48 percent of Republicans said a one-on-one lunch meeting was appropriate, while 81 percent of Democrats were fine with that.
Weiler said that while he’s not rigid about the preference, he often invites his wife to such gatherings to head off any confusion from the woman he’s meeting with, his wife or anyone who could spot them.
“To pretend like Mike Pence is the only one that has this concern is disingenuous,” he said. “I just hate that he gets teased. What’s more wonderful than a man who is trying to honor his wife?”
Holding women back?
Men are far more likely to hold senior management or executive positions than women are. For that reason, it usually harms women when colleagues won’t meet one-on-one, according to Trish Hatch, director of the Salt Lake City-based Women’s Leadership Institute.
“We have heard stories from countless women on how they have been either excluded from going out to dinner with their boss because they are women and either the wife of the boss isn’t OK with it or the boss himself isn’t OK with it,” Hatch said.
This matters, she added, because casual interactions are a bedrock of advancement in the workplace.
“Those places are where you develop the bonds and the connections,” she said. “When you’re in a conversation with someone else and they say, ‘Hey, do you know someone who could help with this project or be a good hire for this?’, you’re going to remember the people you have interacted with and who you have rapport with.”
But Geist said people may have other reasons for avoiding one-on-one encounters, such as concerns about sexual harassment and safety.
Some women may fear that a car ride alone with a male colleague could lead to unwanted sexual advances. That may be why 25 percent of women in the Utah survey said it’s inappropriate to drive in a car with a man other than a spouse, Geist said. That 19 percent of men also believe it’s wrong to be alone in a car with a woman who is not a spouse may suggest a fear — albeit sometimes irrational — that they might be falsely accused of inappropriate behavior or harassment.
“The fear is real,” said the U. professor, “but the odds of being wrongly accused are probably much smaller than the risk for women of actually being assaulted.”
Utahns weigh in
Working Utahns disagree on whether the decision about whom to meet with privately should be a personal choice or simply a professional one.
Kayla Owens, 32, of Stansbury Park said she generally avoids meeting alone with men out of respect for her husband.
“Marriages and families are more important than anything else,” she said.
But Owens, who has a master’s degree in mathematics from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, said it was necessary during her college years to frequently meet with men to complete assignments.
“If my adviser had refused to meet one on one with me,” she said, ”that would have made my thesis quite difficult to do.”
Brandon Ivie, a 47-year-old Centerville resident, said he avoids going to lunch alone with women “as a general rule” to prevent situations that could lead to infidelity.
“The more time you spend with someone, the more attracted they become to you and the more attracted [you] become to [them],” he said. “I love my wife and I would never cheat on her, but I could. I think everyone needs to admit that to themselves.”
Jared Bird, 21, who works as a paralegal at a Salt Lake City law firm, said rules like these assume everyone is heterosexual and sexually promiscuous.
“As a gay man, I could go to lunch or dinner with anybody or be in a locker room, and I’m not going to go after my colleagues,” Bird said. “If they think it’s not appropriate to go out to dinner with a colleague because they will have sex with them or something, that’s just a way to excuse piggish behavior.”
In The Tribune’s poll, Utahns, including very active Mormons, were far more likely to see work meetings between men and women as appropriate. Nationally, 63 percent of women and 66 percent of men thought a private work meeting was fine. In the Utah poll, those numbers shot up to 88 percent of women and 91 percent of men.
Shelley VanZomeren, 43, works at Wells Fargo in the male-dominated field of financial fraud analysis and said these gender considerations had been a distraction during work meetings at a previous job.
“If I was speaking to someone like the CEO or something, the door was always open,” she said. “I felt like he was spending too much time thinking about that and was taking his mind away from what we really needed to be addressing.”
At the Women Tech Council, co-founder and President Cydni Tetro tries to close the gap between men and women in the industry. The Salt Lake City organization has a number of initiatives for women in tech, such as a mentoring program, networking events and awards to recognize their accomplishments.
“We should be on equal footing when it comes to the ability to go to lunch, travel together and do any of the other activities that help build the company,” Tetro said. “You have to make sure you create a great culture to get those women there.”
The success of programs like these can be significant not only for the women they impact directly, she said, but also for employers’ bottom lines.
Heather Zynczak, chief marketing officer at Pluralsight, won a Women Tech Award in 2012 and has participated in some of the organization’s networking events. She said it’s important for all employees to be able to conduct business wherever it occurs.
“Business happens in the boardroom, in lunches, in business meetings you drive to. Business happens on the golf course,” Zynczak said. “To not allow men and women to interact, you’re stifling your team members’ ability to work together. And you’re going to stifle women’s ability to be successful in your jobs and — ultimately — you’ll stifle your company’s success.”
For change to happen, Tetro said, managers and executives need to set an example for the rest of the company.
“If you see the example of your CEO and someone on your executive team meeting with those female managers, that people are traveling, that everyone is doing the best they can, you create this expectation that it’s not a question,” she said.
Beyond work in the boardroom, Hatch, director of the Women’s Leadership Institute, said there needs to be a cultural shift in the way people view those with whom they work.
“Women have to get more confident in who they are, and men have to not see women as women,” she said. “They need to see women as colleagues. As equals.”