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The question What was offensive about the "ladies lingerie department" joke, and how can I avoid offending people in a similar way? has caused a lot of controversy in comments and answers, in particular with respect to whether it shall be open or closed. Since any discussion on this in the comments or chat will inevitably get very tedious due to other matters being discussed in parallel, we (read: some moderators) have decided to lock the question and take this issue here.

Be aware that there are already seventy deleted comments on this question and its answers, some of which were not nice.

This Question

In an answer please propose how we should proceed with this question:

  • Should it stay closed?
  • Should it be reopened as it is?
  • Should it be changed in a specific manner and then reopened?

Please answer only with respect to this site. Migration would only happen if the target site wants it (which is unlikely) and thus not something we can decide.

Food for Thought

It would be great if you could address these questions in an answer:

  • Does this question fit our scope?
  • Is the question reasonably narrow?
  • Is it reasonably clear what is being asked?
  • Can it be avoided that this question turns into a popularity contest?

Update: A new question has been posted, following from the discussion below Jake Beal's answer.

The new question has some discussion here.

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    For my part, I have the very unpleasant sensation that most of the users asking for closure do so because they dislike the answer. I haven't seen anyone address that. – user9646 May 16 '18 at 15:15
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    @NajibIdrissi - There's also the phenomenon of voting to close AND writing an answer... but that is a fairly new participant and I'm hopeful think time and experience will do their job. – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 19:54
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Having just reviewed my supervisor's training on workplace harassment, I have strong opinions on this question. Short version: it can have a simple and definitive answer, and should be edited and re-opened

  1. This is not really an Academia question, but a general question about professionalism in the workplace. As such, one might argue that it should be migrated to Workplace.SE.
  2. At the same time, a lot of the questions and answers on this site boil down to "yes, academia is also a workplace, and professional behavior is required." I think this is important, because many people seem to hold beliefs that academia is otherwise.
  3. As such, I believe the question can be answered quite simply and in much the same way that it would on Workplace.SE.

In my opinion, the core problem with the question is that it invites "explain this joke to me" answers. It should be edited to focus more clearly on the "How do I avoid workplace harassment?" question instead, and answers should be dealt with similarly.


More concretely, I believe the answerable concern in the core of the question is:

I am worried because I don't understand precisely what was offensive, so I fear that I might do something similar.

I would consider the question to basically be suffering an X-Y problem because the asker has jumped to an attempted solution of "understand why this joke is offensive" rather than sticking with the problem of "I fear that I might do something similar."

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    The question explicitly excludes joke explanation (and this isn’t the focus of the existing answers), but it does solicit explaining the offensiveness – which is a slightly different focus than “How do I avoid …?”. – Wrzlprmft May 16 '18 at 12:24
  • As it focuses on the offensiveness it seems more like an interpersonal interaction and IPS.SE wants nothing to do with the question. My guess is Workplace.SE would reject the migration also. – StrongBad May 16 '18 at 13:07
  • @scaaahu we talked about this in the network wide super secret moderator room. My take on the discussion was no moderators wanted the question. What I don't remember was if anyone from workplace.se was around. – StrongBad May 16 '18 at 13:20
  • @Jakebeal: Please see my edit to the question and clarify whether you propose to have the question reopened on this site. – Wrzlprmft May 16 '18 at 13:24
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    @Wrzlprmft I propose to have it reopened on this site. To do so, I would propose to: 1) Edit the title (which asks to explain the joke), 2) Compress everything from "I don't understand why ..." down into: "I am worried because I don't understand precisely what was offensive, so I fear that I might do something similar. What are reasonable actions that I can take to avoid having a similar problem?" This would focus on a concrete answerable about steps and measurable outcomes and be uninviting to rants and intention/motivation analysis. – jakebeal May 16 '18 at 16:46
  • Doing this to the question would, I think lead to something that is simple and constructively answerable. I'm less sure about what to do about highly voted answers that would be rendered misfit---are there appropriate moderator tools for "rebooting" the answer set? – jakebeal May 16 '18 at 16:48
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    @jakebeal when edits are so drastic, the tools would be to close the original question and ask the new one. – StrongBad May 16 '18 at 17:36
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    @StrongBad - That sounds like an excellent solution. A non-catchy title would at least postpone the question arriving at the HNQ list. Perhaps "How can I be respectful to colleagues and avoid pitfalls as described in question?". – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 19:49
  • @StrongBad How should we arrange that? Do you think it would be appropriate for me to post the revised new question, or should we attempt to persuade the OP to return and coach them? – jakebeal May 17 '18 at 2:59
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    If you are interested, just post a new question. I can make it CW to try and help encourage people to try and edit it to get the best fit. If you want me to, just flag it. If it is well received and gets an answer I can add a link from the original question to your new one and ping the user. – StrongBad May 17 '18 at 15:22
  • @StrongBad Done. – jakebeal May 17 '18 at 16:46
  • Here is the link to the new question: academia.stackexchange.com/q/109937/32436 – aparente001 May 18 '18 at 0:41
  • why do you think professionalism in academia is off topic? – SSimon May 19 '18 at 4:58
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I think that this is a good faith question which we should attempt to give a good faith answer to, and I like several of the answers which were given before it was closed. It could also go on workplace or IPS, but I do think academic norms are different enough that it would do well here.

There are a number of academics who don't see how what, from their point of view, seems like a light joke, can feel exclusive and unwecloming to others. Off the top of my head, I remember Should academic papers necessarily carry a sober tone? , Would students feel uncomfortable if I include in my lecture a quote which is somewhat sexually suggestive? and Is it appropriate for my professor to include gender offensive material that is unrelated to the class subject matter in the course notes? . I think the answers to those questions are helpful to academics who are proceeding in good faith but don't see the problem.

One of the things I love about most of the stackexchange network is that it is a place where you can ask very basic questions and get clearly written answers. Not every place should have to be like that (indeed, my primary SE site, mathoverflow, is very explicitly not!) but I think it is good that most of the SE network is.

As regards the question of whether this would be the same in any workplace: I don't think so. As an academic, I continually receive the message from my employers and my community that they are very concerned about gender representation and have put a lot of thought into issues of microaggressions. I hear the same thing from people I know who work in tech, but I don't hear it from doctors, lawyers, musicians or chefs. I think gender issues are more tense in this community, so I think an answer explaining the norms in this community would be helpful. Indeed, I suspect that math is different from political science, and it might be best if we got an answer from someone in the political science world.

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It makes no sense to open it.

  • If you make it generic, and remove the actual quotation there is no question in the question. It would basically be asking "What are some offensive things you could say to women at a conference?"

  • If we leave it open with the quotation intact, that means we're OK with people posting rude comments they hear at a conference and asking "Was this woman overreacting to this comment?" ... which really isn't the point of this site.

There are some questions about taking offense that would make sense here. For example, someone insisting on "Miss" over "Doctor" or "Professor," but we're not here to judge passing rude remarks an academic is subjected to.

I find it hard to believe the OP thought there was some specific academia-related reason the comment was in poor taste, and agree with StrongBad's opinion they disagreed with the negative press.

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    I will add to that, it doesn't even have to be a conference. It could be in any setting. – Herman Toothrot May 16 '18 at 12:27
  • @HermanToothrot and Azor Ahai - The question is, "How do I avoid saying offensive things to women at conferences?" Not "What are some offensive things I could say?". // It's up to the moderators and the community to keep everyone on topic, and prevent people from diverting the focus to "Was this woman overreacting?". // The specific relevance to academia is that women have had difficulty entering and progressing in certain academic fields or subfields, and this won't change without respectful dialog and discussion about existing problems and possible solutions. – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 20:00
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    @aparente001 I do not think "How do I avoid saying offensive things to women at conferences?" is on-topic either, since that would be asking for a list. Therefore, IMO, removing the details would make the question pointless. // That is not unique to academia, and I have no idea what her field/subfield was, and I don't think it's relevant to the question at all. – Azor Ahai May 16 '18 at 20:05
  • @AzorAhai - Thanks for your thoughtful reply. For the first part -- I personally think it can be answered without a list, but note that there are plenty of valid questions on this site that receive good answers that include a list. // Note, I'm not suggesting that the details should be removed from the question. // For the second part of your reply - just because a problem comes up that is not unique to academia doesn't mean that it's necessarily off topic. That is, I don't think that characteristic in itself is a deal breaker. // I do appreciate that you yourself don't ... – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 20:09
  • ... consider the dilemma described in the question relevant for your life in academia. Fortunately many others who participate here do, and I hope, over time, your interest grows regarding exploration of more ways to support diversity in academia. – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 20:11
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    @aparente001 I'm not sure where you got the idea I don't care about the dilemma? And I take minor offense that you think I'm not interested in supporting diversity in academia, but I recognize maybe my phrasing at some point gave you that impression. I regret it if it did. || My point there was that you said women have difficulty in some subfields - but I have no idea what her subfield is and I don't think it's relevant in this situation because that remark would be incredibly rude to make to any woman ... – Azor Ahai May 16 '18 at 20:37
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    ... Anyway I think the question "Why is this comment rude?" is not really on-topic here. Maybe the question could be rephrased as "Is this remark especially rude to women in academia?" – Azor Ahai May 16 '18 at 20:40
  • I'm sorry I misunderstood! // Re "Is this remark especially rude to women in academia?" - Hmm. I'm starting to get a bit lost. Are you saying it's offensive to men too? – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 20:44
  • @aparente001 No? I'm saying it's very offensive/rude for a man to jokingly ask a woman to press the button for "women's lingerie," no matter if they're professors or not (unless, I suppose, she's an actual elevator operator). – Azor Ahai May 16 '18 at 20:46
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 20:47
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    @aparente001 Anyway, I think jakebeal's answer is best - this question is not salvageable but the underlying question could be rephrased and asked separately as you suggest (I upvoted that comment) – Azor Ahai May 16 '18 at 20:47
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The question should be open to receive answers, but with lots of structure.

First, I'll respond to the specific points raised by StrongBad.

  1. "I cannot possibly see how a comment about women's lingerie can be construed as having anything to do with academia."

It wasn't the underwear that had to do with academia, it was the setting where the underwear remark occurred, that created the connection with academia, and the nature of the question "How can I avoid a faux pas of this type?".

  1. "The question fails 3 of the 5 don't ask tests."

    (a) "Every answer is equally valid, as in, “What’s your favorite ______?”. Why I find X offensive is no more or less valid than why someone else finds it offensive (or not)."

I believe it's possible to provide a comprehensive answer which explains each of the levels on which the elevator remark was offensive. There are innumerable answers on this site that involve a list of points. Just because a question has a multi-part answer doesn't mean it isn't well posed.

  1. (b) "There is no actual problem to be solved, as in, 'I’m curious if other people feel like I do.' This is essentially what is being asked."

Actually, OP starting out by saying, Such-and-so respected body found that the remark was offensive. He goes on to say, help me understand how it was offensive, and suggest how I can avoid being inadvertently offensive. So, OP isn't curious if others share the respected body's determination that the remark was offensive. In fact, he asked that people not get into a debate about that, and simply take the respected body's position as a given.

  1. (c) "Your question is just a rant in disguise, as in, '______ sucks, am I right?'. I cannot help but think one of the motivations for asking the question is that the OP feels the sanctions (and negative press) were unfair."

I didn't take the question that way. It seemed to me that OP was asking how to avoid giving offense because he wanted to know. The question wasn't a rant in disguise because rants in disguise don't go past the complaining stage, or if they do, the constructive part is of less importance than the complaining part. (For hybrid posts, that combine rant + constructive part, there's an easy rescue -- edit out the rant part; and this leaves a well-posed question that can be left open.)

  1. "Third, the question is rather broad and I believe requires an answer that covers the history of sexual harassment/discrimination and the 'Elevator Floor Announcement' trope. While it is possible that someone will provide a sufficiently broad answer, I think it is unlikely given the number of answers the question has already received."

I looked at your link for the trope; it appears to be tangential. Regarding the history of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, while that's a fascinating topic, the question can be answered without writing a historical treatise.

There are other questions on this site that someone might feel tempted to answer with an overblown answer. That doesn't mean the questions are badly posed.

  1. "I think the answers are going to continue to be based on personal experience/views which are controversial and lead to extensive discussion in the comments."

In my opinion, a subjective answer based purely on personal experience wouldn't be a well-constructed answer.

(If you're still concerned about this, the moderators could create a ground rule for this question, that answers that consist of nothing but the OP's subjective experience will be removed.)


One of the major challenges Academia SE faces has to do precisely with gender. Each question related to gender issues is a learning opportunity for individuals who participate here, and for the community as a whole.

I do appreciate the headaches this question creates for the moderators; but I have a lot of confidence in our moderators. I think they're up to the job of keeping things organized and civilized -- with the help of community members responsibly raising flags when needed.

One or more good answers to the question OP raised would add to the value of the site.

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    Yes the comment was made at an academic conference, but the reason it is offensive has nothing to do with where it was made. The comment would be just as offensive if it was made at a trade show and none of the answers are specific to academia. – StrongBad May 16 '18 at 4:01
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    It is worth noting that the issues we have with gender questions tend to be caused by outsiders. The questions tend to make the HNQ list and attract a lot of attention. The views expressed on those questions are not representative of our community. – StrongBad May 16 '18 at 4:07
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    @StrongBad If the comment was made in an elevator of a university campus building, a female professor pushed the button, a male student said lingerie department, do we treat it as off-topic question? – scaaahu May 16 '18 at 4:37
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    @scaaahu: If you ask me: Yes; this question is as much about academia as “How do I fix my professor’s computer?”. – Wrzlprmft May 16 '18 at 5:23
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    @StrongBad And yet I gave an answer that explains why the comment is especially insulting in an academic context, and why it violates an academic conference's code of conduct. – user9646 May 16 '18 at 6:31
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    @NajibIdrissi: Except for the source of the cited code of conduct (which can be replaced by any other reasonable code of conduct), I see nothing specific to academia in your answer. – Wrzlprmft May 16 '18 at 8:18
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    @Wrzlprmft - "the reason it is offensive has nothing to do with where it was made" -- Here's the thing. Unless we root out sexism and other sorts of intolerance in academia, and at Academia SE, needed changes will be unnecessarily delayed. Look, I sympathize, regarding the amount of dreck the moderators have to deal with when our controversial material hits the !!Top Ten Click On This!! list, but that's a separate issue, which of course does need to be resolved. Censoring healthy inquiry into gender issues in academia is not a good solution to that problem. – aparente001 May 16 '18 at 19:11
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I think the question should stay/be closed for a number of reasons. First, I do not agree with the arguments that

I think it is wrong to assume that no part of this is specific to academic culture (if that's the case, that's part of the answer)

I cannot possibly see how a comment about women's lingerie can be construed as having anything to do with academia. While the comment was made at an academic conference, it would have been just as offensive at any other event (e,g., a trade show). In fact, none of the current answers provide any academic specific context.

Second, the question fails 3 of the 5 don't ask tests

every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite ______?”

Why I find X offensive is no more or less valid than why someone else finds it offensive (or not)

there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”

This is essentially what is being asked

your question is just a rant in disguise: “______ sucks, am I right?”

I cannot help but think one of the motivations for asking the question is that the OP feels the sanctions (and negative press) were unfair.

Third, the question is rather broad and I believe requires an answer that covers the history of sexual harassment/discrimination and the "Elevator Floor Announcement" trope. While it is possible that someone will provide a sufficiently broad answer, I think it is unlikely given the number of answers the question has already received.

Finally, I think the question is reasonably clear in asking "in what way is X offensive". The problem is that the answer really depends on the person you ask. I can assure you there are a number of topics that my grandfather would not find offensive, that I find astonishingly out of place. I think the answers are going to continue to be based on personal experience/views which are controversial and lead to extensive discussion in the comments.

I do not think editing the question can address the fact that I do not see how a comment about women's lingerie can be construed as having anything to do with academia. I also do not see how anything short of a major rewrite would transform the question from a bad subjective to a good subjective. The broadness of the question is not a huge issue in my opinion and if everything else could be addressed through edits, I think could be ignored in reopening the question. It might be possible to address the personal experience/views issue by rephrasing the question as "Why might groups of individuals construe the comment as offensive?", but I am not sure that is the case and it does not address the boat programming and bad subjective nature of the question.

  • Looking at the Elevator Floor trope (I think I am too young to have realized this could exist), he was basically quoting Harry Potter. That teaches us quite a bit about context and connotations and how you can go wrong (as the person saying something and the person interpreting it). It might be a question for Interpersonal.SE, but not Academia. – skymningen May 16 '18 at 12:43
  • @skymningen we checked with IPS.SE and they would reject the migration. – StrongBad May 16 '18 at 13:09
  • @StrongBad By contrast one could say it passes 2 of the 5 don't ask tests. – LateralTerminal May 22 '18 at 16:50
  • @LateralTerminal sure, but failing any one test is often reason to close a question. Just because a question passes one (or even two) of the tests is not enough to suggest it shouldn't be closed. – StrongBad May 22 '18 at 16:53
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My 10 cents, it would be good to see it on the site, and open, if people are able to control their emotions and address it in a methodical and rational way. Particularly if commenting is monitored.

These types of topics can become highly charged quickly and this can circumvent constructive discussion and possible resolution of these issues.

Is it relevant, yes. It is interesting and elucidating what type of behaviour is acceptable in this type of situation and breaking it down into the basic parts of why something is not appropriate. Academic situations abide by strict codes of conduct, so exploring what breaches these is important.

0

Honestly I don't understand why

How can I avoid inadvertently offending my female peers and getting into trouble for it?

is open and

What was offensive about the "ladies lingerie department" joke, and how can I avoid offending people in a similar way?

Is closed.

They are both still basically asking the exact same question in a different way.

I think the original question was formatted in a much better way with more context.

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