Gender studies professor files formal complaint against male colleague for cracking 'inappropriate elevator joke'

A male professor who made a joke in a crowded elevator at an academic conference is now facing disciplinary charges after a female professor who was there filed a formal complaint.

                            Gender studies professor files formal complaint against male colleague for cracking 'inappropriate elevator joke'
(Source: Getty Images)

A female professor has filed a complaint against a male colleague for making a joke in a crowded elevator at an academic conference. The male professor is facing disciplinary charges for the same.

According to a Washington Post opinion piece, Richard Ned Lebow was in a packed elevator when someone asked him what floor he was getting off on. Lebow teaches international political theory at King's College in London.

“Ladies’ lingerie,” he joked.

At the time, Lebow was attending the International Studies Association conference being held in San Francisco. When the professor cracked the joke, a professor of women's and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, Simona Sharoni, who was also present in the same elevator, took offense from his wisecrack many hours after the incident.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lebow later explained that it was just a joke, a "standard gag line." However, Sharoni did not think it was funny.

She then decided to file a complaint with the association hosting the conference, which concluded that Lebow had violated their code of conduct.

The news of the complaint reached Lebow, who turned to Sharoni, sending her an email and assuring her that he "certainly had no desire to insult women or to make you feel uncomfortable.” He added that Sharoni may have “interpreted my remark out of context.”

“Like you, I am strongly opposed to the exploitation, coercion or humiliation of women,” Lebow wrote, according to the Post. “As such evils continue, it seems to me to make sense to direct our attention to real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal. By making a complaint to ISA that I consider frivolous — and I expect, will be judged this way by the ethics committee — you may be directing time and effort away from the real offenses that trouble us both.”

Once again, the ISA committee decided to play safe in a politically correct society and found fault with Lebow calling Sharoni's complaint "frivolous." The association even asked him to write an apology to Sharoni, but the professor refused to do it.

The political theory professor told his colleagues that this was “a horrifying and chilling example of political correctness” that “encourages others to censor their remarks for fear of retribution.” "For decades, women and other marginalized groups in the academy had to put up with white men who decided what counts as a violation and what is ‘frivolous,’" Sharoni told The Chronicle.

"As someone who has dedicated her life to confronting sexism (and other forms of discrimination and oppression) in academic spaces, I cannot and will not remain silent when misogyny is at play."

As of now, the ISA has decided to impose appropriate sanctions on Lebow if he does not apologize to Sharoni by May 15.

On Thursday, Washington Post first reported Lebow's public response to the ISA's decision: “This is a kangaroo court and is damaging to my career because there are people out there who somehow believe I’m a misogynist,” he said.

“I’m not a Harvey Weinstein or one of these people who are repeat offenders,” he added. “There’s never been anything like this with me, quite to the contrary, I have mentored and supported women throughout my career.” For Lebow, the bigger issue at hand is the detrimental effect this decision would have on students and scholars, “making them even more likely to censor themselves.”

According to Sharoni, Lebow threatened her in a barrage of hate mails that he would "launch a public smear campaign directed at me." She asserts that such behavior could discourage others from filing complaints as it could result in reprisal.

“From inappropriate jokes in public spaces to unwanted sexual advances and assault, men in positions of power are outraged when they are being held accountable, even if the sanction is as minor as a request for an apology,” Sharoni said.

In day to day life, an elevator joke seems like something two adults would handle privately without the need for a formal investigation. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus offered this opinion, which many think is an objective stance on the issue,

This episode reflects not only a generational and cultural divide but also the unfortunate intersection of two prickly personalities with the bad luck to be stuck in the same elevator. She shouldn't have leaped to file a grievance; he shouldn't have added fuel by labeling her charge "frivolous."

The days of women feeling compelled to stay silent in the face of sexist remarks or conduct are thankfully on the way out. Hear something, say something, by all means.

But then, let's maintain some sense of proportion and civility as we figure out how to pick our way through the minefield of modern gender relations. The International Studies Association did not respond to a request for comment immediately.