Women Aren’t Funny: Why is this Gender-Based Myth Gaining Traction?

Young business woman in a office environment.By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

To further understand how difficult the corporate landscape continues to be for women, one only needs to look at headlines associated with linguistic expert Judith Baxter’s most recent study: “Female bosses ‘less funny in the boardroom’” and “Women’s jokes fall flat at work, report finds.

The professor of applied linguistics at Aston University spent 18 months conducting her research at seven large companies, examining 14 team meetings, of which half were led by senior-level men and half by senior-level women. Baxter found that women often resort to self-deprecating humor, with 70 percent of female senior professionals joking about themselves in a somewhat negative light. Needless to say, it almost always went over poorly. While it was clear the women were making self-deprecating jokes because it was the safer option (they would rather laugh at themselves than laugh at others), their humor was seen as “contrived, defensive, or just mean.”

“I looked at the wording that provoked the laugh. In almost every case, the speaker had attempted a witticism which might range from a pun, a self-deprecating remark, a jokey remark at the expense of other colleagues or their organization, or banter with colleagues. There were few fully fledged jokes. I then looked at the response to the witticism. I saw that women rarely gained a laugh, unlike men. Indeed, they often ended up laughing at their own jokes, which made the comment appear contrived and the speaker seem defensive,” Baxter said.

Masculine Norms

The attempt at lightheartedness can backfire for women in the boardroom, but to make matters worse, some are using Baxter’s findings to reinforce the ridiculous and weirdly-common belief that women aren’t funny. This is especially true in the case of Michael Kerr, a motivational speaker and expert on humor in the workplace, who was interviewed for a widely-circulated piece based on Baxter’s findings in which he posits that “both sexes tend to agree that men in general are the ‘funnier sex’”.

“It bothers me because it reinforces essentialist attitudes about women in the workplace,” Baxter said. “My message is that masculine norms of speaking and interacting have positioned women leaders as generally less competent, so that women are partly on the defensive and this is reflected in the way they speak. My view is that masculine norms have to be challenged, and this involves allowing women the space to speak and interact in a greater range of ways than they currently do. It means responding to funny women.”

And that’s part of the problem, really. Baxter found that more than 80 percent of women’s jokes were met with silence and meanwhile 90 percent of jokes made by men were greeted with immediate laughter or approval. As a result, men were three times more likely to joke while leading a meeting. Another part of the problem is masculine leader stereotypes. Baxter’s research shows that male managers use humor to demonstrate and display their leadership of a team. Even male subordinates will display humor to impress a male boss because it shows they’re on the same wavelength. According to Baxter, it is part of leadership ‘tribe’ behavior which women find hard to join.

The Message Behind Self-Deprecating Humor

Baxter says that by directing the humor at themselves women can safely indicate that they are not criticizing others, and that they share similar weaknesses with their colleagues or the organization. Men, on the other hand, will jest at the expense of other men and they especially use humor against their organization.

“Witticisms only work if they are delivered with a certain flair and panache. If self-deprecating comments are delivered as slightly embarrassed ‘asides’, they are less likely to be responded to,” Baxter said.

The defensive form that women’s humor takes reflects the fact that women have not achieved parity in the boardroom and they have to work hard to prove themselves. Their use of humor also constructs them as less competent and fit because they do not speak and act according to masculine norms. In other words, women don’t use that leadership tribal type of humor referenced previously, involving lots of banter, lengthy jokes, mock abuse, and humiliation of others.

Making More Genuine Connections

All hope is not lost, however. Kathy Klotz-Guest is the founder and CEO of Keeping It Human, a San Jose-based marketing communications company that teaches businesses how to employ humor in order to make a more genuine, human connection with their clients. Klotz-Guest also has over 20 years of experience performing sketch, stand-up, and improvisational comedy. The cornerstone of improvising, she says, is being open to possibilities and to collaborate and make your partner, team, or team members look good. Clearly, this lends itself to a business setting.

The good news is that if humor is often employed at your workplace by male leaders, it’s a sign that your company culture is open to humor, levity, and fun and when that is true, Klotz-Guest says, there is more loyalty, more innovation, and usually as an extension of that, better customer relationships.

Running the Risk

The CEO says that the fear of making a mistake holds too many women back from using humor, which is a shame because if you can make someone laugh, you have connected with them on a deeper level and in turn, they are more apt to listen to you.

“I think the mistake women make is they self-censor way too much,” Klotz-Guest said. “Many are less likely to try to use humor because they talk themselves into believing it’s too risky. Men tell jokes and really don’t worry if it works or not. When it doesn’t, they don’t beat themselves up over it. Women are just as capable; however, in general women have a different relationship with risk. It’s a generalization to a degree, but the research backs up their fears. Essentially, women are trying to acclimate to a climate that is fairly new to them. They need to be themselves and use what works for them.”

As we’ve already discussed, what women tend to gravitate towards is self-deprecating humor and as Baxter said, Klotz-Guest believes it can be detrimental because over using this type of humor hurts women and their credibility, giving male colleagues permission to question their competence.

“The good news is that this illustrates that women are much more attuned to relationships and are far less likely to use the put-down humor regularly used by men,” Klotz-Guest said. “The bad news is that women so often use self-deprecating humor not because they lack confidence, but because they are trying to lower their status in the workplace in order to send the message, ‘Hey, I’m just like you, no better, no worse.’ In short, we are trying to relate as equals. The issue is that when overused, it sends a red flag to men especially that women aren’t comfortable using humor or that they lack confidence. Of course this isn’t always true, but therein lies the problem.”

An executive from Robert Half International once told Klotz-Guest that humor was a must-have trait in the top five list of competences that his clients wanted in their senior managers, while another recruiter at a large tech firm told her that if someone didn’t have a sense of humor, they wouldn’t fit in their fast-paced, hectic, stressful environment. Clearly, a sense of humor is becoming increasingly important, so what are women to do?

Humor: An Attitude of Fun

Klotz-Guest says that the most important thing to understand is that humor is an attitude of fun. Essentially, you can take what you do seriously, but you don’t have to walk around being serious all the time. A sense of humor is playful, while comedy is about being funny. Employing humor, she says, is also about being likeable and human – those are the big payoffs. “I want people to understand that there is more risk in not using humor than using it,” the CEO said.

When working with women, the first thing Klotz-Guest tells them is to give themselves permission to lighten up. She says to stop over-thinking things. Humor is a muscle: the more you use it, the more you develop it.

Secondly, she recommends that women have a healthy relationship with risk. As long as your humor is appropriate and not offensive, the downside won’t be that big. Klotz-Guest says it’s not about being “man-like” in your approach; it’s about leveraging your emotional intelligence and attunement with others to know when to employ humor.

Lastly, Klotz-Guest wants women to truly understand that humor is more than just jokes. It’s about stories, lightening up, being improvisational and spontaneous and quick with a smile or witticism. Concentrate on being playful, she says, and do what comes naturally to you. Don’t pander to please others, don’t do one-liners if they’re not your thing; just be yourself.