Many men and women are wary of a range of one-on-one situations, the poll found. Around a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.
The results show the extent to which sex is an implicit part of our interactions. 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.
Further, the poll results provide societal context for Vice President Mike Pence’s comment — made in 2002 and resurfaced in a recent profile — that he doesn’t eat alone with any woman other than his wife.
Attitudes reflect a work world shadowed by sexual harassment. In recent news about Uber and Fox News, women see cautionary tales about being alone with men.
In interviews, people described a cultural divide. Some said their social lives and careers depended on such solo meetings. Others described caution around people of the opposite sex, and some depicted the workplace as a fraught atmosphere in which they feared harassment, or being accused of it.
“When a man and a woman are left alone, outside parties can insinuate about what’s really going on,” said Christopher Mauldin, a construction worker in Rialto, Calif. “Sometimes false accusations create irreversible damages to reputations.”
He said he avoids any solo interactions with women, including dining or driving, as does his girlfriend with other men. When he needs to meet with women at work or his church, he makes sure doors are left open and another person is present. Others described similar tactics, including using conference rooms with glass walls and avoiding alcohol with colleagues. “Temptation is always a factor,” said Mr. Mauldin, 29.
One reason women stall professionally, research shows, is that people have a tendency to hire, promote and mentor people like themselves. When men avoid solo interactions with women — a catch-up lunch or late night finishing a project — it puts women at a disadvantage.
“If I couldn’t meet with my boss one on one, I don’t get that face time to show what I can do to get that next promotion,” said Shannon Healy, 31, a property manager in Houghton, Mich.
Any rule about avoiding meetings that applied only to one sex, even if unspoken, would most likely be illegal, said Peter Rahbar, founder of the Rahbar Group for employment law. Such behavior is often cited in gender discrimination lawsuits, he said.
Working with The Times, Morning Consult, a polling, media and technology company, surveyed 5,300 registered voters in May. The survey did not ask about marital status or sexual orientation.
Over all, people thought dinner or drinks with a member of the opposite sex other than a spouse was the most inappropriate, with more people disapproving than approving. Lunch and car rides were less objectionable, but more than a third of people said they were inappropriate. Fewer than two-thirds of respondents said a work meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex was appropriate; 16 percent of women and 18 percent of men with postgraduate degrees said it was inappropriate.
In general, women were slightly more likely to say one-on-one interactions were inappropriate. So were Republicans, people who lived in rural areas, people who lived in the South or Midwest, people with less than a college education and people who were very religious, particularly evangelical Christians.
Yet the gender caution reaches across divides — and into many workplaces.
Kathleen Raven, a science writer at Yale, considers herself to be progressive in many ways. But she does not have closed-door or out-of-office meetings alone with men, because she was previously sexually harassed. She also tries to avoid being too friendly, to ensure she doesn’t give the wrong impression.
“Women are taught to believe that we are equals while we’re growing up, and that’s not a good message,” said Ms. Raven, 34. “We have to make a lot of efforts to protect ourselves.”
Shelby Wilt, 22, of Gilbert, Ariz., said she and her boyfriend socialize alone with friends of the opposite sex. At work, though, it depends on the man. At the restaurant where she used to work, she would ask for conversations with certain men to take place in the kitchen, with others around. “It’s very much an instinctual call,” she said.
If they were above 65, Republican or very religious, respondents were slightly more likely to say people should take extra precaution around members of the opposite sex at work. They were less likely if they were young, students, not religious or registered as an independent.
“Organizations are so concerned with their legal liabilities, but nobody’s really focused on how to reduce harassment and at the same time teach men and women to have working relationships with the opposite sex,” said Kim Elsesser, author of “Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace.”
People who follow the practice in their social lives described separate spheres after couplehood. They said they wanted to safeguard against impropriety — or the appearance of it — and to respect marriage and, in some cases, Christian values. That often meant limiting opposite-sex adult friendships to their friends’ spouses.
Cindy McCafferty, 60 and Catholic, is single, but said she would do so in a future relationship. “The Sixth Commandment is you don’t commit adultery, and you don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that,” said Ms. McCafferty, a mental health caregiver in Appleton, Wis.
Dennis Hollinger, president of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and an expert on sex and Christian ethics, said the practice goes beyond what the Bible requires.
“All of us know our ethical and spiritual vulnerabilities, and the idea of establishing protocols to live out those commitments can be a good thing,” he said. “The negative side is this particular practice really can appear to treat women in really dehumanizing ways, almost as if they were a temptress.”
Some people said the behavior simply did not reflect the world they live in. For Hannah Stackawitz, 30, a health care consultant in Langhorne, Pa., life without solo meetings with men is unimaginable. “I do it every day, honestly,” she said, as does her husband.
“There’s no way that women or men can become their full and best selves by closing themselves off.”