A measure that involves avoiding contact with women as a way to buffer oneself against allegations of abuse has traversed the globe from the U.S. and found its way to South Korea. And apparently, we’re back to 14th-century Chosun Dynasty standards.
Searches and posts about the “Mike Pence rule” spread across social platforms and within Korean search portal Naver News last week, with internet users pointing to it as a “countermeasure” to avoid being called out by the Me Too movement.
The concept of the “Mike Pence rule,” covered by the Korea Times and other outlets, was a term coined from an interview last year with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in which he said that he never eats alone with women other than his wife to avoid accusations of sexual harassment.
In Korea, this measure comes with its own brand of reproach. Avoiding one-on-one time with women in a country that already has the largest gender wage gap among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations actually impedes progress.
South Korea ranks 118th of 144 in terms of gender equality, and women earn 63 percent of what men earn. To be sure, Korea is a deeply patriarchal society, where men and elders maintain authority and domination, so this power imbalance is entrenched.
And now, accusations of wrongdoing against famous politics, lawyers and authors have led to a countermovement to Me Too in Korea. Bank teller Park Won-ji provided an example of the “Pence rule” to the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, saying that her boss has decided to communicate with his female staff members through text messages rather than in-person.
“I feel like I’ve become a criminal in the office. I have done nothing wrong, but men are leaving me out of their gatherings and sometimes treat me as if I am invisible,” Park told the news outlet.
There is, of course, a countermeasure to the countermeasure, with many in Korea pointing to arguments that invalidate the “rule,” such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaking out about how it would be a huge roadblock for equality. She offered the reminder that there is still an imbalance in creating fairness for women since there are far more male executives on a given staff than female.
I feel like I’ve become a criminal in the office. I have done nothing wrong, but men are leaving me out of their gatherings and sometimes treat me as if I am invisible.
Bank teller Park Won-ji, speaking to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper
But beyond those workplace dynamics, the presumption of sexual harassment in every interaction characterizes both men and women as lacking agency and also discounts structural issues that impede gender equality. Korean society ― or any society ― won’t prosper this way.
When the ideas behind the “Mike Pence rule” began circulating in the U.S., anecdotes included a male surgeon saying he no longer greets a colleague with a hug, detailed in The Washington Post, and issues with canceling one-on-one meetings on work trips.
The Post points out not only does the Pence rule abdicate men of responsibility and cast woman as untrustworthy narrators, it also implies men are motivated strictly by sex. As the Post points out:
“Instituting rules that create de facto segregation by gender is a tacit admission that men are inherently unable to control themselves around women. If we follow the logic to its natural end, the inevitable conclusion is that the only line separating a co-worker and a harassment suit is convenience.”
Emma Gray, writing for HuffPost, points out men are certainly better than that.
In the wake of the allegations of misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Gray also noted that workplace mobility is undeniably related to forming the right relationships and establishing proper allies.
In Korea, where longstanding traditions can create boys’ club workplaces, and where bonding is often carried out in the form of drinking after hours, women don’t need another obstacle.
As Gray pointed out, if men decide to limit their interactions with women, women are the ones left to pick up the pieces of the ensuing disrepute: “Let’s put the onus for professional behavior where it belongs ― on the male power-brokers ― rather than punishing the women who have to deal with their predatory behavior.”
A version of this post originally appeared on HuffPost Korea.