Some workplace humor can backfire for women, study finds

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Women who use humor in some work-related situations may be perceived as disruptive or distracting, according to a study by researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Colorado at Boulder.

The study asked more than 200 people to react to male and female retail store managers giving presentations on sales performance. In some of the videos, the managers used humor.

While the women who used humor were perceived as disruptive, the men were viewed as more functional, report the Careerist and the Washington Post. The humorous men were viewed as having high status, and the humorous women as having lower status.

The study results likely are based on gender stereotypes in which men are viewed as more focused on achievement and women are viewed as having less dedication to their jobs, the researchers concluded.

One of the researchers, Jonathan Evans of the University of Arizona, told the Washington Post that the study findings suggest that women may want to limit humor when they are making a sales presentation or when they are interacting with new people. “The advice from many popular authors and books is that adding humor to your presentation makes you more charismatic,” Evans said. “That can be misguided for women.”

In an interview with the Careerist, Evans said it’s possible that women who use dry humor or “casual, impromptu humor” wouldn’t be viewed so negatively. He also said that older women with a strong resumé might be able to use humor effectively because they are perceived as dedicated to the job.

Other researchers who spoke with the Washington Post said there may not be a need for women to cut back on humor in workplace situations outside scripted presentations.

A researcher at the University of Warwick in London, Stephanie Schnurr, told the Washington Post that she has studied workplace teams in which humor helped women “bridge the gap” with men.

Another professor, Joanne Gilbert of Alma College in Michigan, said she doesn’t think the study takeaway should be that women can never use humor at work. She would encourage a woman in a leadership position, for example, to use humor at a board meeting of male colleagues if she can make people laugh.

The Careerist is troubled by the study results and the possible exceptions cited by Evans.

“Basically, it means women are allowed the privilege of being funny only if they’re not too direct or if they’ve proven themselves,” the Careerist wrote for the American Lawyer. “To me, the better course is for women not to give a damn. While it might be true that funny women don’t get the respect that funny men do, so what? Do we need to add another ‘don’t’ to our list?”

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