Do jokes help men but hinder women in business?

Last week an article was published in Harvard Business Reviews with a headline that stated: “Making Jokes During a Presentation Helps Men but Hurts Women.” You could be forgiven in thinking various anecdotes of women in power suits fainting right out of their task chairs when a male colleague cracked wise were to follow. In fact, this is a study of how women who use humour are received in the workplace.

The authors claimed through study to have found that though “Plenty of research shows that leaders who use humor are able to increase their employees’ performance and job satisfaction… Overall, humor appears to produce positive consequences for both the source and the audience.” when it comes to women they “may actually be harmed by using humor at work.”

According to their findings, while men who use humour in a work presentation are seen as higher status and more capable, however the same is not so for women in a presentation. “when women add the same humor to the same presentation, people view them as having lower levels of status, rate their performance as lower, and consider them less capable as leaders.”

As I wrote on International Women’s Day, due to gender stereotyping humour is traditionally seen as predominantly male. The researchers of this study took “gender stereotypes and different interpretations of humor at work might influence one another” into account: “Our hunch was that the interpretation of humor as either functional or disruptive is affected by the gender of the humorous individual.”

It’s worth noting they only studied 300 employees selected online in the United States across various industries. Were this medical research I’m not sure it would fly quite yet (because I have an AS Level in biology and I know about this stuff). In two controlled experiments, they used a male and female actor to play the role of a shop manager. The actor/manager presented a quarterly performance report to an audience of two actors (again, one female, one male) playing the role of regional managers.

These fake presentations were recorded and delivered in a conference room with a full view of the presenter and the backs of the heads of the regional managers. Both the male and female actor gave two presentations, one devoid of humour and one which opened with a self-deprecating joke “So, last night, my husband (wife) gave me some good advice about this presentation. He (she) said whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!” (I’m starting to see where maybe these results got skewed).

Armed with the actor/shop manager’s identical work histories and resumes, as predicted by the researchers the participants rated the woman’s use of humour as “less functional and more disruptive than the man’s use of humor. These results were consistent regardless of whether the participant was male or female; both males and females judged the actress’s humor more negatively.” When the humourless presentations were reviewed under the same conditions it was clear from the scores that the male ‘shop manager’ had benefited from using humour, whereas the woman had been penalised.

The researchers reported that “One participant noted that the humorous woman showed ‘poor judgment in jokes’ and another noted that she tried ‘to cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes.’ In contrast, participants who saw the humorous male presentation commented that ‘he is witty and likes to use humor to not seem like a stern speaker’ and another said that ‘he adds a touch of humor to break up the monotony of his presentation.'”

In spite of their findings, the researchers don’t conclude that women should shy away from using humour at work, rather “organizations and managers should instead increase awareness of this prejudice.” The hope being that “Ultimately, this can help women be more uninhibited in their use of humor at work, and organizations will be more likely to enjoy the positive outcomes of humor.”

Funny Women founder Lynne Parker, who regularly holds corporate workshops with women in business to help them find confidence in using humour said: “It’s no wonder that women are risk-averse to ‘telling jokes’ when this sort of research is doing the rounds.”

I’d be interested to know if the scripted joke had not referred to a spouse at home giving advice if the results might have been different. Due to the homemaker stereotype, I can’t help but wonder if any reference to home life from a female professional implies difficulties in balancing professional and domestic duties. It seems this goes beyond a good sense of humour…

Needless to say, we find the idea of a joke damaging a woman’s career laughable.