A city employee in Austin, Texas, has been taking advice from the Mike Pence handbook on interacting with women-people, according to documents obtained by the Austin American-Statesman. William Manno, the events manager in charge of orchestrating city festivals such as South by Southwest and Austin City Limits, has received a written “reprimand” for refusing to meet with female employees because he feared things could turn, or appear to turn, inappropriate.
The city’s investigation of Manno’s behavior began in early July, after a female business specialist in Manno’s department reported that he had missed meetings because he thought a communications consultant who’d be there “had romantic feelings for him,” the American-Statesman reports. The specialist told investigators that Manno had floated the idea of reassigning both the consultant and a female assistant city attorney with whom he interacted at work because his wife apparently took issue with how they interacted with him. According to a memo about the investigation, Manno also canceled regular lunch meetings with the consultant, explaining to her that “I’ve been told it is not appropriate for a married man to have lunch with a single lady.” The consultant told investigators that she thought that statement was “odd,” because she’d assured him that she didn’t have sexual or romantic feelings for him and just wanted him to mentor her.
On the surface, this looks like another instance of men being incapable of interacting platonically with women. Pence, like many other religious men, abides by a self-imposed rule that says he can’t dine alone with any woman other than “Mother” (aka his wife). The implication there is that women are temptresses by nature and/or men are just giant floating balls of hormones and urges that can easily drift outside the bounds of marital fidelity toward any passing whiff of a woman’s scent. Then there’s the Rick Ross school of thought, which holds that taking on female protégées is a bad idea, because it’s nearly impossible not to have sex with them. Ross described his theory in terms a bit more vulgar than Pence’s, but the effect is the same: Women miss out on important mentoring and bonding opportunities when the men in charge see them as latent sex threats instead of regular employees with admirable skills and leadership potential.
Manno’s case is a bit more complicated, though. The business specialist who brought the complaint against him was reportedly spurred to action by a discussion with Manno’s wife, who found out that Manno had given the specialist a ride to City Hall. According to the specialist’s statement to investigators, Manno’s wife told the specialist that she and her husband were working through some troubles in their marriage and that he had promised to never again have a female employee alone in his car. There isn’t much in the way of details about why this was such an important issue in their marriage, but one can imagine a few reasonable explanations for his wife’s concern.
Last week, Manno filed a grievance contesting the investigation’s results. “I do acknowledge that I introduced personal information about my marriage into the workplace and to a subordinate,” he wrote. “I recognize that this does not foster a positive work environment and is unprofessional and inappropriate conduct in the workplace. As such, I will ensure that this does not reoccur.” But, he contended, “many of the statements included in the reprimand memo are based on misleading and incorrect information.” The communications consultant hugged Manno multiple times at a 2016 New Year’s Eve event, the business specialist’s statement to investigators confirmed, which Manno named in his grievance as the reason why he didn’t want to be alone with her.
There are many ways Manno could have dealt with this situation—starting with talking honestly to his wife about the kinds of meetings his job entails—without trying to cut off professional contact with women in his workplace. Unless the consultant was actually sexually propositioning or harassing him, which he hasn’t claimed, his actions were based on his own history and hangups with women. Women will never get equal treatment or promotion at a workplace where they’re treated as temptations lying in wait.
Update, Sept. 19, 2017: This post’s headlines have been updated to better reflect Manno’s title.