When Jennifer Michelsen, co-founder of Gunnar Optiks, met with a consumer electronics company in New York, she walked into a room full of men. In her office, she is known as a jokester, but here, “I told some jokes that got no response whatsoever: no emotion, just blank stares,” she says. Her co-founder and the company’s president, both men, tried to ease the awkward moments.
Jokes made by female senior professionals are often perceived as “contrived, defensive, or just mean,” says a new report by linguistics expert Judith Baxter, head of English at Aston University’s School of Language & Social Sciences in the U.K. Baxter conducted her research at seven large companies and examined 14 team meetings, of which half were led by senior-level men and half by senior-level women.
Women often resort to self-deprecating humor, with 70 percent of female senior professionals joking about themselves in a somewhat negative light, shows Baxter’s research, as reported in the Telegraph. Still, this didn’t seem to earn chuckles: More than 80 percent of women’s jokes were met with silence. Meanwhile, 90 percent of jokes made by men were greeted with immediate laughter or approval. As a result, men were three times more likely to joke while leading a meeting.
“Men are using [humor] as a leadership tool, to ensure that they are part of the leadership tribe. The use of humor reinforces membership, whereas women don’t have access to the range of humor men do,” Baxter says. “If they use the jocular abuse that men use, that would be viewed negatively.”
Michael Kerr, a motivational speaker and expert on humor in the workplace, says this is due in part to how men and women are socialized. “I know with my own surveys, and other research I’ve read, that both sexes tend to agree that men in general are the ‘funnier sex,’” he says in an e-mail interview. “What seems to be a consistent theme is that men are more likely to be humor creators, whereas women tend to appreciate the humor more and laugh more easily than men do.”
Even a psychology study published in 2011 by the University of California at San Diego concluded that men were slightly funnier than women. The late Christopher Hitchens might have considered this a vindication of his 2007 polemic “Why Women Aren’t Funny.”
John Morreall, president of Humorworks in Williamsburg, Va., says traditional men’s humor tends to mock and humiliate and uses jokes with punchlines, while traditional women’s humor expresses support and solidarity and uses true stories without a kicker. Men defined comedy and workplace humor for years. “As [women] increase power in the business world, there’s a clash between women’s humor and men’s humor,” he says. “Women have this tough act because they are using a medium that is usually a male game.”
Not only are women newer to the funny-at-work craft, but audiences also tend to favor men. “Women laugh at men’s humor more than men will laugh at women’s humor,” says Morreall. “And men will expect women to laugh at their humor, but not initiate it.”
In addition to being a social lubricant, humor relieves stress and increases mental flexibility and creativity, says Morreall. Still, self-deprecating humor—traditionally women’s humor—is actually best at work, he says, as it’s not threatening, and no one actually thinks less of a person for it.
Morreall refers to a joke former New York Governor Mario Cuomo told in which his wife advised him before a talk not to try to be clever, or witty, or intellectual, but to just be himself. It was well received. Could a woman tell the same joke about just “being herself”? Unless she is high-powered, “there might be some conflict there,” he says. “Women put themselves down more than men. It would seem like an expression of a lack of confidence.”