Instead, she forwarded the email to the ISA––and the ISA emailed Lebow, “At the request of Prof. Sharoni, I am asking that you have no further contact with her.”
Meanwhile, that committee decided the matter. The ISA’s code of conduct declared the organization’s duty “to ensure that members and participants are not bullied and/or harassed.” And it defined what constitutes harassment as follows:
Unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women. It may be related to age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, disability, religion, nationality, or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or isolated. The key is that the actions or comments are experienced as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient.
Lebow awaited the decision.
Ultimately, he was sent a formal letter declaring that his comment in the elevator was “offensive and inappropriate and thus a violation of ISA’s Code of Conduct.”
The letter added:
...you need to understand that ISA procedures work to ensure that:
• ISA members and participants who feel that they have been victims of bullying and/or harassment as defined in this code of conduct are entitled to pursue their case in a safe and non-threatening environment.
• ISA is committed to ensuring that complaints brought under this procedure shall not lead to the victimization or harassment of any individual.
With those items in mind, the fact that you chose to reach out to Prof. Sharoni, and termed her complaint “frivolous,” was actually viewed by both committees as a more serious violation than the elevator incident itself.
“The remedy,” the ISA declared, is “to require that you formally apologize to Prof. Sharoni” in writing. Actually, the ISA would read the apology first and forward it along to Sharoni if it was sufficient. “Please note that a sufficient apology should address your actions,” the organization specified, “rather than the perceptions of Prof. Sharoni.” It added, “these matters are considered confidential by ISA.”
Lebow retorted that the result “encourages frivolous complaints and distracts attention from serious issues of discrimination and misogyny.” He went on: “It is even more shocking to me that a genuine effort to reach out to this woman to try understand her point of view was viewed as ‘a more serious offense.’ I have no intention of apologizing to the alleged victim. Please circulate my response to both committees as I will circulate theirs to the ISA membership.”
Later, I asked Sharoni to tell me her side of things.
“I filed the complaint because a comment about ‘ladies lingerie’ is inappropriate in any public space, especially at an academic conference!” she wrote. “In fact, most workplace sexual harassment policies include jokes with sexual innuendo as examples of behavior that will not be tolerated.” She added, in part:
I followed protocol in filing my concerns with the ISA, which the association upheld, and hoped it would end with a simple recognition by Professor Lebow that what he said was inappropriate in context. He is a renowned and respected scholar and I have no intention of harming his hard-earned reputation – which is why I did not choose the media route.
However, basic civility is a burden society imposes on all of us, or ought to. In refusing to apologize and instead opting to launch a public smear campaign directed at me, Professor Lebow and his supporters undermine ISA's ongoing efforts to create an inclusive climate at its conferences. Most alarming, is the message to others, especially graduate students and junior faculty, who may consider reporting violations of the Code of Conduct, that filing a complaint, may result in personal and professional retaliation.
For years, the term “political correctness” has been used as the blanket excuse by those who refuse to rethink and change their racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs and practices. 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.
Even with all these details, your reaction may still turn in large part on whether you agree with Lebow or Sharoni about the original joke. But I think that all of the parties to the dispute were set up for frustration by glaring flaws in how this corner of academia handles these disputes.