No Joke: Why Humor Gender Gap Isn't Funny
Funny you would think humor is gender blind in the workplace, because it’s not.
A new study published in the Harvard Business Review by researchers from University of Arizona, Bowling Green State, Michigan State and University of Colorado of hundreds of workers across the United States, finds women are penalized for using humor in presentations, while men are applauded.
Some punch line.
According to the researchers, “Our first experiment provided evidence that male and female humor is interpreted differently. In the second experiment, we investigated how adding humor compares to not including any humor by using all four videos (male and female; humorous and not humorous).”
They continue, “When the male manager added humor to the presentation, he was given higher ratings of perceived status, job performance, and leadership capability compared to when he did not include any humor. However, the opposite occurred for the female manager. Adding humor led to lower ratings of perceived status, job performance, and leadership capability.”
This may go against common cultural assumptions that having a sense of humor is a good thing as a leader.
HBR reports, in “Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds and communications coach Carmine Gallo says, ‘Humor lowers defenses, making your audience more receptive to your message. It also makes you seem more likable, and people are more willing to do business with or support someone they like.’ This advice has been echoed by a number of other authors.”
They write, “On the surface, this seems sound. Plenty of research shows that leaders who use humor are able to increase their employees’ performance and job satisfaction. Hearing something funny or being amused can reduce stress, improve social relations, generate a positive mood, and increase motivation. Overall, humor appears to produce positive consequences for both the source and the audience.”
Yet this new research delivers a new caveat. So what should you do if you are prone to delivering jokes to ease tension, or just have a sense of humor you like to express?
Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, offers strategies on gender bilingual communication.
Feldt writes that such communication misfires, “are rooted in power imbalances between the sexes. And those gendered power imbalances become ingrained in everyday language. These imbalances in turn have fostered the ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ approach to male-female communication. And yet, we do inhabit the same planet after all and therefore must learn to speak each other’s languages in order to thrive at our highest levels.”
Feldt advises, “Leaders inherently must grapple with creating an environment in which clear and respectful communication happens in the best interest of the individual people and the health of the organization. And both men and women benefit from learning the language of power so they can use it to get things done and in order to speak effectively across gender and culture.”
Assuming the jokes you deliver just fall flat and are not at someone’s expense, know that no matter how you communicate, respect must be an underlying assumption in your communication.
As Take The Lead reports, “Regardless of the culture that abides outrageous antics of comedians and media pundits, as strong leaders, employees, colleagues, partners or entrepreneurs, there is absolutely no excuse, redemption or recovery if you cross the lines of human decency and respect. Or if as a witness you stay mum.”
TTL continues, “Even if the discriminatory or inflammatory comments do not come out of your mouth, if you are party to the conversation or statements, or recipient of the emails or social media messaging, if you do not say something or stand up, report it and express disdain, you are also part of the culture that condones it.”
This new study is a cautionary tale for women leaders in how they will be perceived in the workplace if they use humor in presentations. But common sense prevails here, that the gender bias can be met with a light approach.
“There’s one element of business management many people tend to forget: the human aspect. Teams are made up of individuals who have emotions and personalities — no one person is like the other. Laughter humanizes leaders and flattens the workplace hierarchy, it sets the pace of the environment you build. If your team members aren’t laughing and enjoying themselves at work, something’s wrong in your office,” writes Christian Valiulis, Chief Revenue Officer at APS, in Forbes.
So should you temper your sense of humor in the office? You can judge your audience in your own organization and adjust your style, but also remain authentic.
“There is no doubt that there are gender differences in the way women and men leaders’ behaviors are perceived. How should women deal with this. Don’t stop being funny, but don’t give up your capacity, likely socialized from an early age, to be aware of the feelings and subjectivities of the people around you.”
And remember, even if a funny thing happened on the way to the presentation, the best outcome would be to help develop a workplace culture where different styles of communication are welcome regardless of gender.
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com