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When being funny can hurt women at work

A new experimental study finds male leaders who use jokes in a presentation can be seen as "functional" while the same humorous script is viewed as "disruptive" by female leaders. (iStock)

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 are 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 at Boulder tested how humor is viewed when it comes from male vs. 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-wrote the paper.

Context is key here, however. The researchers designed an experimental study in which 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 vs. buying things at a store.

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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 by the participants as making the women seem less capable as leaders.

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.

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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 should 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 London’s 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’s 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 worked 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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