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Report: Using humor at work can set women back

Woman presenting to a group

Despite the popular belief that leaders who use humor at work endear themselves to colleagues and are seen as charismatic, using humor may damage a woman’s status, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Colorado at Boulder found that humor expressed by men is interpreted as more “functional” and “less disruptive” than humor expressed by women.

Given the association of humor with positive outcomes, it is natural for organizational leaders to seek ways to incorporate humor into workplace interactions,” according to the study. “[However,] recommending the use of humor to women leaders may in fact reduce their perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement.”

The researchers presented study participants with videos of men and women giving two versions of a scripted workplace presentation — one with and one without jokes. Participants ascribed humorous men higher status compared to non-humorous men, while ascribing humorous women lower status compared to non-humorous women.

One theory for the discrepancy: “Working women are stereotyped as having lower dedication to work, due to their association with family responsibilities and the perception that women cannot be simultaneously dedicated to both work and family,” the study concluded. Because of this bias, jokes from women can be interpreted as a cover-up for incompetence or a distraction.

The good news is that increased awareness of this prejudice can help reduce its occurrence. When well-meaning individuals learn they have acted with bias, they are motivated to stop expressing that prejudice and to break that habit, potentially reducing implicit biases long-term, the researchers found.