The “Pence rule” is trending in South Korea as #MeToo takes hold

Following a series of explosive allegations of sexual harassment in South Korea in recent weeks—with the latest bringing down one of the country’s most prominent politicians—some Korean men are trying to figure out how to navigate gender relations in the world of #MeToo.

Enter US vice president Mike Pence.

The term “Pence rule” has been trending since yesterday (March 7) on South Korean’s biggest internet portal, Naver. The term is a reference to a comment the vice president made in a 2002 interview where he talked about avoiding dining alone with women apart from his wife.

“An increasing number of men showing extra vigilance around women at work have created a ‘Mike Pence Rule’ situation in Korea,” wrote the Korea Herald, which detailed stories of men who have decided to avoid women in the office altogether. One man said he asked his boss not to send him on business trips with female colleagues to avoid any potential misunderstandings.

But in a culture where professional relationships depend heavily on group activities, such as going out drinking together after work, enforcing the Pence rule as a way of coming to terms with #MeToo means that an increasing number of Korean women now fear being ostracized from office activities that could hinder their opportunities for advancement at the workplace. One woman told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper that she felt “invisible” at the office after her boss decided to communicate with his female staff through text message rather than face-to-face to prevent any misunderstandings.

It’s another disadvantage that working Korean women could do without. Already women in South Korea face the starkest gender pay gap out of OECD countries, with men paid about 37% more on average than women compared with the OECD average of 16%. Structural obstacles that make it difficult for women to return to work after having children, for example, mean that women drop out of the workforce at a sharp rate once they enter their mid-20s. The number of female irregular workers also far outstrips that of men.

The Chosun Ilbo noted (link in Korean) that in the US, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg had warned against the negative consequences for women in offices if men decide to shun contact with them altogether. In a Facebook post last month, Sandberg wrote:

“If men think that the way to address workplace sexual harassment is to avoid one-on-one time with female colleagues – including meetings, coffee breaks, and all the interactions that help us work together effectively – it will be a huge setback for women.”

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