185 funny women walk into the office…
Sounds like a funny joke set-up and a great potential place to work. Yet, what’s not funny is that many women are holding back their brilliant humor at work.
That hurts women and workplaces. How many corporate environments feel like black holes where humor goes to die? Too many.
There are myriad reasons why women hold back. Research released by the American Psychological Association in 2019 shows women still pay a humor penalty for using humor at work – compared to men – because of bias:
“…when women add the same humor to the same presentation as men, people view them as having lower levels of status, rate their performance as lower, and consider them less capable as leaders.” –Kim Elsesser, Forbes
While it’s hard to speak to the subjective elements of the APA study, e.g. how lines were delivered, it follows a general pattern of corroborating studies that point to what women already know from experience: Bias against funny women is real. That creates fear and risk.
Women at work often have to work harder to prove themselves and their expertise, especially in male-dominated spaces. Women hold back in hopes of being taken “seriously,” but ironically many are also later told, “lighten up, you’re unapproachable.” It’s telling women, “Could you be you and also less like you?!” Sound familiar? It’s a sucker punch to the gut – as women try to climb the double-standard-driven, very conveniently movable corporate ladder. That ladder must be in a password-protected inner sanctum few of us can even find! Does it even exist?
We don’t see our funny selves in advertising, either. A 2016 Unilever study of thousands of global brand ads showed that only 1% of global ads portray women with a sense of humor.
And less than 3% of global ads depict women as leaders, let alone funny leaders.
What in the lack-of-women-creative-director-ridiculousness is up with that?
It’s time for change. While the bias and fear are real, humorous women who get work done aren’t going anywhere, and it’s time to elevate them. When women succeed, we all do.
Women’s humor is usually affiliative (nurturing relationships and building fellowship) as well as self-enhancing (laughing at themselves) vs. aggressive (putting down others). With the exception of a bit too much self-deprecation (compared to men), women are more likely to use humor to connect, lift and not separate – like a damn good emotional support bra! Who doesn’t want that?!
That means changing the old narrative that ‘less than serious means less than professional.’
And, because of that, women’s humor can be part of a big shift in the future of work towards a healthier, happier, more innovative, and psychologically safe workplace that normalizes humor for ALL OF US.
Humor is also important for career advancement. (Non-gender-specific) research shared by the Harvard Business Review (Fabio Sala) in 2003 shows that the more executives use humor, the more competent they seem and the more promotion (and bigger payday) opportunities they get. Robert Half International’s data shows that 91% of executives surveyed believe humor is important to career advancement. And a Bell Leadership Institute study revealed that a sense of humor was rated one of the most important traits of successful leaders alongside ‘work ethic.’
Look, positive humor makes us more approachable, joyful and human. And that’s something we need for ourselves and for work. It’s that simple!
So while, yes, there is the risk (and fear) of penalty, there is also big potential upside for women and workplaces. Moreover, change won’t happen if funny women hide. So then, what can companies – and all of us – do to support women bringing their humor to work?
1. Redefine humor as a continuum, not a switch
Humor is play, levity, an attitude of joyfulness and it’s way bigger than just jokes. Hit your joy spot regularly! Little things matter – show up with what is real and natural for you: Word play, small observations, puns, jokes, stories, for example. It’s what works for you organically. Own your natural humor. A little goes a long way. Don’t take yourself so seriously all the time.
2. Aim at situations and commonalities, not people
Use humor from your life and experience. Don’t try too hard. Humor is about the truth. So when I say after 24 years of marriage, I’ve never thought of divorce, just murder…people in long-term relationships know EXACTLY what I mean.
3. Use self-deprecation sparingly
When you do, don’t make fun of your business expertise. Can’t cook? Great – as long as you’re not a chef, no problem! The higher your credibility in an organization, the more you can do it – like when you make a mistake. It’s a double-edged sword that can come off as a lack of confidence even when it’s not, so less is more.
4. Normalize humor as healthy for teams and culture and everyone – because it is
Encourage laughter and make it a healthy part of meetings and interactions. Don’t let it get co-opted. Let it be a part of how your team organically interacts regularly. Make it safe by showing up with your own positive, healthy (no punching-down) humor.
5. When you hear people make biased comments about women and humor, challenge it with humor
“Did you say, ‘women aren’t funny”?…that is a joke!” or “Guess you don’t know many women!”
6. Tell women their humor matters.
Managers, put it in performance reviews. Women are far less likely to be praised for humor as a leadership skill than men – even though women are so much less likely to use it for putting people down. Let’s change that by nurturing it. Apply the same standards for all humans.
Start small if you must. Just start somewhere.
We all have to bring our humor selves to work for work to change and be the more human, compassionate and safe workplaces we want. The only way to dismantle bias and end the soul-sucking reality of ‘terminal seriousness at work’ is to face it directly and laugh at it. Avoiding humor at work because of bias and fear means bias and fear win. By owning our natural humor, we help change that bias, lower fear and claim our birthright, ladies… which is to own our funny all of the time. Corporate YOU needs humor YOU. Remember her? She’s compassionate, deeply connected to others and is anything but boring!
And damn right, humor YOU doesn’t sit in the backseat anymore; it rides in the passenger seat as corporate YOU’s equal. I’d say it rides ‘shotgun’ – but, we really gotta change that expression!
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