For Working Women, Being Funny Is No Laughing Matter

Since businesses first began to be, well businesses, women have had a tough time being taken seriously in the workplace. While aggressive men were seen as go-getters, women were being overly ambitious or pushy. Men could be a lot of things perceived as part of the performance ideal, but for women, those same factors often are posited as negatives.

Now, according to a new report from University of Arizona and University of Colorado at Boulder, women can add being funny to the risk list. Say what?

In the paper, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers explored how being funny worked for both men and women sales professionals when presenting in front of an audience. Women who took a delivery style with some humor mixed in came off as “disruptive.”  On the opposite side, any budding Jerry Seinfelds were perceived as being more helpful and “functional,” the paper reports.

“The female humor was rated as more dysfunctional,” Jon Evans, one of the researchers who co-wrote the paper, told the Washington Post.

For the study, four videos–two with humor and two without (and each type containing a separate male and a female)–provided the test materials.  The twist was that both gender presenters used the exact same jokes to the viewers.

According to the paper, gender still colors the perceptions of behavior. “When we form an impression about an individual, we’re using multiple sources of information, and these influence each other,” Evans told the Post.

The Post also cited other, older research that when looking for a partner, women prefer funny men. Men? Having a would-be stand up-type as a partner made little difference. In another study, the Post reported, an educator examined 14 million professor reviews by students, and on balance, women often fell short  compared to men on the use of humor, regardless of the academic area.

Getting back to the workplace, this latest academic study may only relate to audiences who do not know the speaker/HR leader. So when it comes to trade shows, client cold calls or a job interviews, women should tread carefully, according to the Post.

“The advice from many popular authors and books is that adding humor to your presentation makes you more charismatic,” Evans told the Post. “That can be misguided for women.”

And as the report itself stated, “These differences have implications for subsequent performance evaluations and assessments of leadership capability.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected]