Being funny at work can hurt women, study says

Researchers say funny comments can be ambiguous and humor styles vary.

By Cassie Owens and Anna Orso/ The Philadelphia Inquirer

Over Jayna Fey’s 15 years in the workforce, she’s been called too assertive, too comfortable, too “frowny,” too familiar. Accurate or not, she used to make self-deprecating jokes about these traits.

Not anymore. The 30-year-old consultant says she’s done making cracks about who she is: a pixie-cut-rocking, septum-ring-wearing leader with a brash sense of humor.

But that doesn’t mean Fey — who’s also managed restaurants and dabbled in standup comedy — is done being funny at work. There are too many benefits.

“I don’t want to have any job or be in any environment long term,” she said, “where we can’t make each other laugh.”

A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology that showed being funny at work can hurt women and help men sparked a conversation about how women professionals fare when dropping jokes in the office.

What’s consistent is that good things can happen for women who use humor at work, like sprinkling a presentation with puns to make others comfortable or easing tension with a sarcastic one-liner.

Jonathan Evans, the study author and a doctoral student in management at the University of Arizona, said that while the results suggest women can’t benefit from using humor in the same way their male colleagues do, the goal wasn’t to tell women to tone it down. Instead, people should use the report to recognize the prejudice.

“When we evaluate others, let’s be aware there tends to be this negative bias,” he said, “and let’s pay more attention to that so we can reduce it.”

Researchers had two actors, a man and a woman, deliver presentations as if they were managers of a retail store. Both presented two reports, one funny and one not. The researchers avoided humor that could be risky for women — no sardonic jabs, no making fun. They opted for conversational wit that was more light and self-critical.

More than 300 participants watched their presentations, rating whether they found the boss “functional” or “disruptive.” When the male actor was funny, he was rated as more functional. When the female actor was funny, she was rated as more disruptive.

But plenty of funny women haven’t seen their careers play out that way. Mina Llona, aka radio host Mina SayWhat on Sirius XM’s The Heat and Boom 103.9, is sure that humor helped her as a Latina working in urban radio.

“There’s a stigma that comes with being a woman in a male-dominated field. Sometimes, they think we’re too serious or we’re too focused,” she said. “There’s these stereotypes that come with being that kind of woman. I think that being comical or being witty kind of breaks down some of those stereotypes.”

Brittnie Knight, a program associate at the Knight Foundation who’s hosted a podcast called “Black Girls Laughing,” knows how to adapt her humor to the audience at work. Knight, a biracial black queer woman who lives in West Philadelphia, can’t remember ever being told that a joke of hers was inappropriate. And she cracks jokes all the time. Her sarcasm, she said, “is always on.”

Her last boss, she explained, was a white man who was also sarcastic. She thinks when she was up for her current job, he liked that they shared that quality.

“But normally, I don’t think people respond to my sarcasm as well as he did,” she said.

Some of her peers in the nonprofit world, she explained, have read her as aggressive and sassy. If she wasn’t a black woman, she doesn’t think that would happen.

Like many professionals, she uses humor to broach tough conversations — like using sarcasm to call out everything from casual racism to institutional biases. That approach gets the conversation rolling, she said, but “hasn’t worked with seeing action followed up with that.”

She’s been thinking about her sense of humor recently, talking about it in therapy.

“I feel like I use it as a shield for other people,” she said. “And it really sucks when I think about that that’s what I feel like I have to do.”

A 2000 study in the Journal of Managerial Psychology noted that women and people of color across genders in the workplace were historically discouraged in professional development guides to avoid humor altogether. But in diverse settings, people might be using jokes as a means to cope. Evans said that while they didn’t evaluate how race would shift reactions, that merits further study.

Researchers say humor improves work relationships, but funny comments can be ambiguous and humor styles vary, especially in crosscultural conversations. Also, how people hear humor is influenced by stereotypes.

Cecily Cooper, an associate professor of management at the University of Miami who’s researched humor in workplaces, said those differences can even cause anxiety during conversations that should be fun. She added that the study says more about gender than humor.

“We still have these pervasive gender differences in terms of how women are evaluated compared to men,” she said, “and in initial reactions, women never fare as well, and that’s been shown over and over again in a lot of different contexts.”

Since the experiment captured only first impressions, the study’s authors acknowledge that other factors could offset a poor reception to jokes. For example, the researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review, a funny woman boss with “a reputation for arriving early, staying late” could skip the costs that other women pay for trying to get laughs.

The problem, they wrote, is this shows women must “meet a higher performance standard before benefiting from the use of humor.”

SayWhat said there are pluses to using humor as a woman in radio — using it makes you more likable and brings levity to news or commentary.

Still, she’s noticed women can’t seem to use sexual humor the way men can, without risking the consequences or being oversexualized. When she’s discussing R-rated topics on her show, she’s careful about not going too far.

Navigating this, she said, is about balance. And learning not to put women in boxes.

“God forbid I’m smart and I’m pretty,” she quipped, “and I have a sense of humor.”

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