Study: People respond differently to male and female humor at work

Business News | 18 Jan |

They say humor is the great equalizer, but new research findings out of the University of Arizona Eller College of Management reveal that men benefit and women are disadvantaged when using humor at work.

A new study by University of Arizona Eller College of Management PhD candidate Jonathan Evans, Eller College Professors Jerel Slaughter and Aleksander Ellis, along with Jessi Rivin, currently a PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder, used parallel-constraint-satisfaction theory (PCST) to determine that humorous men are ascribed higher status compared to non-humorous men, and humorous women are ascribed lower status than non-humorous women. As a result, humorous women were seen as less capable as leaders than humorous men and were given lower performance evaluations.

In other words, men benefit from using humor at work, while women are penalized. 

“We looked at the interaction between gender and humor as a predictor of status,” says Ellis. “And there were significant differences in the effect of humor on status for men and women.”

When a woman uses humor in the workplace, it is more likely to come across as “disruptive”—that is, conflicting with the seriousness of work or indicating a lack of dedication to work—compared to when men use humor. In contrast, when a man uses humor in the workplace, it is more likely to come across as “functional”—that is helpful in accomplishing work or in diffusing negative emotions.

The trio used four video recordings of a retail store manager—played alternately by a female actor and a male actor, both with and without humor—delivering a presentation on store performance. Participants in the study, who also received a résumé of the store manager, were asked to view one video and provide an evaluation. Across two samples of participants, the researchers concluded that humor interacts with gender to influence perceptions of status and assessments of leadership—positively for men and negatively for women.

“We know that many popular leadership and management books advocate for the use of humor in winning over stakeholders,” says Evans. “So it’s notable that our findings seem to point to the contrary for women—humor may be a liability if they wish to be perceived as leaders, and humor can now be counted as another gender-based inequity in the workplace.” 

Slaughter notes that “we don’t want to overgeneralize and say ‘women shouldn’t be funny at work.’ This was in the context of a presentation to an unfamiliar audience, and more research needs to be done to understand whether it extends to authentic humor in the context of natural conversations between coworkers. As a start, our hope is that increasing awareness of this particular undesired dynamic can help reduce its occurrence.” 

The research is forthcoming under the title “Gender and the Evaluation of Humor at Work” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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