There are many times in life when a person with a sense of humor lightens the mood of a meeting, family gathering, or party. You may actually look forward to going to work if you know you can count on having a good laughor two at some point during the day. The endless meetings or tedious job tasks that are part of your workload are made more tolerable if these witty folks infuse their observations into the situation. If the person is the boss, even better. You can’t help but admire leaders who don’t take everything all that seriously, including themselves. Similarly, outside of work you may highly value your friends and family members who can either tell a good joke or make light of what might otherwise be a serious occasion, at least from time to time.
In a new study, University of Arizona’s Jonathan B. Evans and colleagues (2019), noted that although humor has the potential to create an environment conducive to positive outcomes, at work and elsewhere, this potential may fail to be realized. If a joke falls flat, the person telling it can look inept or even cruel. Telling jokes can also influence the way you’re perceived by the people who you’re trying to entertain. Based on a model known as “parallel-constraint-satisfaction” theory, which proposes that stereotypes affect the way people interpret the behavior of others, Evans and his colleagues hypothesized that men would benefit and women would be penalized when using humor specifically in the workplace. Men will gain status when they make jokes, and women will lose.
This proposal may ring true if you think about comments over the years suggesting that women can’t be funny. Rather than add to this debate, however, the Arizona researchers looked not at what’s funny or not, but how telling jokes affects they way the joke-teller is perceived which, in turn, influence the joke’s impact. Think about times when you’ve been in a meeting or group setting in which a man constantly makes wisecracks while everyone else is trying to stay task-focused. Try as you might, you find yourself unable to suppress a giggle now and then. You don’t think any less of the jokester and, in fact, find your estimation of him rising as he shows his humorous side. Now imagine that it’s a woman in the role of jester. Do you still think of her as gaining in status, or does she just seem silly?
Parallel-constraint-satisfaction-theory (PCST) proposes that people evaluate a target along multiple dimensions simultaneously, influencing the way they evaluate others. With humor, the joke-teller can be seen as either serving a positive purpose by alleviating tension or as disruptive by distracting people from the task at hand. Gender interacts with this dimension, with male stereotype of a man being high in agency (individual drive) and rationality with women seen as low in personal agency and rationality. Men therefore have the humor-as-functional perception working in their favor but women, seen as irrational and flighty, are perceived as disruptive and even non-funny.
In the first of two studies, Evans et al. asked 96 online participants to rate the disruptiveness and functionality of humor as shown by either a male or female manager performing in an online video. The manager was described in the research materials as a highly successful and talented individual. As the research team predicted, participants rated as more disruptive and less functional the same jokes expressed by women as by men. In the second study, 216 online participants watched videos of either a man or a woman either telling jokes or not telling jokes. Following the presentation of the video, participants then rated the managers on their status, performance and leadership capability.
As the authors predicted, participants rated female joke-tellers as lower in status, which in turn led participants to view them as lower in performance and leadership capability than men. They note that, like an elbow nudge, humor’s meaning can be ambiguous. We impose onto that behavior, they maintain, our stereotypes about the joke-teller. There is no reason that the same jokes, whether told by a male or female, should have the same impact on those hearing the jokes. By supporting the PCST approach, the Arizona researchers showed that humor’s perception is bent by the gender of the joke-teller.
Thus, being sarcastic and teasing violates the female gender stereotype but fits perfectly with that of the male’s. Evans and his fellow researchers maintain that they have added to the literature regarding the lower proportion of female than male CEO’s. If men can get to the top by being funny, but women lower their status potential by engaging in the very same behavior, this would provide yet another cause of the glass ceiling for female executives.
To sum up, humor’s ability to provide fulfillment should be gender-neutral, but since the Evans et al. study suggests it’s not, perhaps there can come a time when, in the words of the authors, “increased awareness can help reduce its occurrence.” Give the female joke-teller some slack, and you’ll be part of that long-overdue impetus for change.