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What's cheating depends on who you ask, may complicate job advancement for women

POSTED: July 7, 2017 6:01 a.m.
Lois M. Collins/

A Morning Consult poll for The New York Times echoes others that show diverse views on what constitutes cheating on a spouse or partner. But this one raises questions about possible impact on women in the workplace and job advancement.

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When it comes to what's appropriate behavior for married men and women when it comes to one-on-one interactions with members of the opposite sex, caution seems to be the watchword among most Americans.

A new poll conducted for The New York Times by Morning Consult suggests fairly widespread belief that men and women should be careful in their interactions, including in the workplace. That, in turn, raises questions about whether women have the same advancement opportunities as men.

Close to one-fourth of respondents think one-on-one work meetings between opposite-sex colleagues are "inappropriate," according to the poll, while two out of three people counsel "extra caution" in opposite-sex situations at work. Meanwhile, most women and close to half of male respondents nix the idea of a man and a woman having dinner or drinks alone if they are married to someone else.

"The results show the extent to which sex is an implicit part of our interactions," writes Claire Cain Miller for the Times. "They also explain in part why women still don't have the same opportunities as men. They are treated differently not just on the golf course or in the boardroom, but in daily episodes large and small, at work and in their social lives."

Nor is the complication of workplace relationships just about the potential for infidelity. "Attitudes reflect a work world shadowed by sexual harassment," as well, she writes.

Other research finds similar concerns about the appropriateness of male-female interactions when one or both are in a committed relationship. For instance, a poll focused on relationships and cheating, conducted by YouGov published this spring, found that a large majority of people believe going to dinner with someone you are attracted to is at least "sometimes" cheating — and 37 percent said it "always" is.

Older respondents were generally more likely to disapprove than younger ones, though millennials were more apt to say "always" (33 percent) than were members of Generation X (28 percent). Females were more likely to consider it "always" cheating than were males, 42 percent to 31 percent.

The age differences held true for the New York Times survey, as well, with older respondents somewhat more apt to suggest being careful around members of the opposite sex at work than were younger respondents. Republicans felt that way more strongly than Democrats, as did people who were very religious compared to those who were not, Cain Miller wrote.

The New York Times article is titled "It's Not Just Mike Pence. Americans Are Wary of Being Alone With the Opposite Sex." The Washington Examiner explains that reference this way: "A small battle in the culture wars opened up earlier this year when Pence's desire to not be in a place that's serving alcohol without his wife and his refusal to be alone with a woman with no one else present surfaced."

The article by Todd Shepherd notes that "when the issue surfaced around Pence, the issue quickly boiled down to pay equality between the genders, with many saying that such an unwritten policy restricted professional women's networking ability, which ultimately hurt their career opportunities, and thus, their pay."

Pence made the statement that he doesn't eat alone with any woman besides his wife Karen in an interview with the Hill in 2002, where he also said he will not attend events that include alcohol unless she's with him. His role as vice president brought those statements back to the forefront in a Washington Post article, sparking heated discussions about whether Pence himself has allowed women to advance while working with him. The answer, as Washington Examiner columnist Becket Adams wrote, is yes. He refers to a list from Pence's office of who fills high-profile jobs on his vice presidential staff; a number of them are women.

For women in the workplace, that stance may pose challenges, according to The Atlantic's Olga Khazan: "Pence is not the only powerful man in Washington who goes to great lengths to avoid the appearance of impropriety with the opposite sex. An anonymous survey of female Capitol Hill staffers conducted by National Journal in 2015 found that 'several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.' One told the reporter Sarah Mimms that in 12 years working for her previous boss, he “never took a closed-door meeting with me. ... This made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult.'”

Research sometimes finds the same thing. As far back as 2000, the Journal of Applied Psychology noted that protégés might be disadvantaged if their mentors were of the opposite sex. That made it more awkward to socialize or network outside of the office.
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