When be­ing funny can hurt women in the work­place

Be­cause hu­mor can be in­ter­preted as a good or bad thing on the job — help­ing to dif­fuse tension, say, or dis­tract­ing from the real job at hand — the gen­der of the per­son af­fects how the jokes are viewed, he said.


Women in lead­er­ship roles often get pe­nal­ized when they’re seen as act­ing too ag­gres­sive at work. They often walk a pre­car­i­ous tightrope, ex­pected to act like a “leader” but also crit­i­cized for act­ing out­side fe­male stereo­types if they’re seen as be­ing too dom­i­nant, too pushy, too self-pro­mo­tional, too am­bi­tious.

And ac­cord­ing to a new study, the joke’s on them: Fe­male lead­ers can ap­par­ently get dinged for be­ing too funny on the job, too.

In a forth­com­ing pa­per in the Jour­nal of Ap­plied Psychology, re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona and Univer­sity of Colorado Boul­der tested how hu­mor is viewed when it comes from male ver­sus fe­male lead­ers giv­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion. When a woman used hu­mor, the study found, par­tic­i­pants were more likely to view it as “dis­rup­tive” or dis­tract­ing from the task at hand, while jokes cracked by men dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion were more likely to be seen as “func­tional” or help­ful.

“The fe­male hu­mor was rated as more dys­func­tional,” said Jon Evans, one of the re­searchers who co-au­thored the pa­per.

Con­text is key here, how­ever. The re­searchers de­signed an ex­per­i­men­tal study where par­tic­i­pants each watched one of four videos of a hy­po­thet­i­cal re­tail man­ager — some­one they didn’t know — mak­ing a store sales pre­sen­ta­tion. In two of the videos, the male and fe­male “lead­ers” used a script with­out any hu­mor; in the other two, they used work­place-ap­pro­pri­ate jokes, such

as cracks about drones de­liv­er­ing pack­ages ver­sus buy­ing things at a store.

The hu­mor­ous men were de­scribed as hav­ing higher sta­tus than the men who played it straight, while the in­verse hap­pened with the women. The jokes were more likely to be viewed as mak­ing the women seem less ca­pa­ble as lead­ers to the par­tic­i­pants.

Evans and his col­leagues used a con­cept from psychology called “par­al­lel con­straint sat­is­fac­tion” the­ory to ex­plain the ef­fect they saw in the study. In a pro­fes­sional set­ting, re­search has shown that men are stereo­typed as hav­ing “agency” — be­ing task-focused, ra­tio­nal and focused on achieve­ment. Other re­search has shown that women are stereo­typed as hav­ing lower “agency” — hav­ing lower ded­i­ca­tion to their jobs and be­ing dis­tracted by fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

These are just stereo­types, of course, but the pa­per sug­gests that they have pro­found ef­fects, si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­flu­enc­ing peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of be­hav­ior, too. “When we form an im­pres­sion about an in­di­vid­ual, we’re us­ing mul­ti­ple sources of in­for­ma­tion, and these in­flu­ence each other,” Evans said.

Be­cause hu­mor can be in­ter­preted as a good or bad thing on the job — help­ing to dif­fuse tension, say, or dis­tract­ing from the real job at hand — the gen­der of the per­son af­fects how the jokes are viewed, he said.

It’s hardly the first time re­search has ex­am­ined the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween gen­der and hu­mor — or at least how it’s per­ceived by oth­ers. Re­search has shown that women pre­fer funny men in a mate, for ex­am­ple, while men ap­pear to show no pref­er­ence for hu­mor in women. One pro­fes­sor looked at some 14 mil­lion stu­dent re­views of pro­fes­sors and found that women were less likely to be de­scribed as “funny” in al­most ev­ery field.

Joanne Gil­bert, a pro­fes­sor at Alma Col­lege in Michi­gan who stud­ies hu­mor, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and per­for­mance, said that there is not ex­ten­sive re­search study­ing the in­ter­sec­tion of gen­der, hu­mor and lead­er­ship traits in the work­place, and that the new study helps af­firm some of what is known about per­cep­tions of lead­er­ship be­hav­ior, though she’d like to see it ex­panded to other marginal­ized groups.

Hu­mor, she said, “is in­her­ently an as­sertive and po­ten­tially com­bat­ive form, and for some­one to cre­ate hu­mor as a rhetor­i­cal act, it’s pow­er­ful,” she said. The out­come of Evans’s study, Gil­bert said, “doesn’t sur­prise me at all.”

But she doesn’t think women should see the study as a mes­sage not to use hu­mor in lead­er­ship po­si­tions. “If she’s in a board meet­ing of all male col­leagues and she can make peo­ple laugh, I would ab­so­lutely en­cour­age her to do it,” Gil­bert said. Women and other peo­ple from less dom­i­nant groups can be even more ef­fec­tive at cer­tain kinds of hu­mor, such as self-dep­re­ca­tion, be­cause it can seem more au­then­tic. “Self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mor can only be used well by some­one who has some­thing at stake,” she said.

Other re­search has shown that hu­mor can be help­ful to women pro­fes­sion­ally. Stephanie Sch­nurr, who stud­ies lin­guis­tics and lead­er­ship at the Univer­sity of War­wick, has stud­ied real-life teams where hu­mor suc­cess­fully helped women over­come dif­fer­ences with their male col­leagues or lighten the firm po­si­tions or con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sions they must make as lead­ers.

“Some­times women ac­tu­ally use hu­mor in these sit­u­a­tions to bridge the gap” with men, she said. “If they use a bit of hu­mor, it en­ables them to soften the im­pact of be­ing au­thor­i­ta­tive.”

One thing that dis­tin­guishes her re­search from Evans’ study, she said, is that she stud­ied ac­tual teams, with peo­ple who knew each other and would be able to put a fe­male leader’s hu­mor into con­text. In­deed, Evans is care­ful to note that caveat, say­ing peo­ple who work closely with a leader would have more ex­pe­ri­ence to draw on.

But in a set­ting where you’re un­known to your au­di­ence — a sales pre­sen­ta­tion at a trade show, a cold call to a new client, even a job in­ter­view — women may want to roll out the laugh lines more cau­tiously. “The ad­vice from many pop­u­lar au­thors and books is that adding hu­mor to your pre­sen­ta­tion makes you more charis­matic,” Evans said. “That can be mis­guided for women.”

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