If I had to pick a word to describe research on women at work in general I'd probably go with annoying. Or maybe irritating. Perhaps infuriating.
Don't believe me? Then check out this study about how women are routinely turned down for more raises than men. Or this one about how what counts as an interruption is different for the genders. Or this winner on how flirting is a good negotiating strategy for women.
My point is simple -- there are a lot of really annoying studies out there about the hurdles women face trying to climb to the top professionally. But one I read about this week on HBR.com might take the cake as the most aggravating of all (so far) -- the new study found that women are even penalized for cracking jokes at work.
A sense of humor may help you survive but it won't help you get ahead.
Given all the other annoyances women face at work, black humor is a refuge lots of us rely on to get us through the low moments. But don't try to use that well honed sense of humor when you make a presentation or speech. A man who cracks up the room is impressive. A woman? She's just just making jokes because she's a juvenile lightweight. Here's the money paragraph from HBR. Brace yourself:
Our research suggests that the benefits of humor do not extend to everyone -- women may actually be harmed by using humor at work. We find that when men add humor to a business presentation, observers view them as having higher levels of status (that is, respect or prestige) within the organization, and give them higher performance ratings and leadership capability assessments compared to when they do not include humor. However, when women add the same humor to the same presentation, people view them as having lower levels of status, rate their performance as lower, and consider them less capable as leaders.
The authors go on to explain their methodology, which involved having male and female actors record different versions of the same speech with and without jokes and then having 300 volunteers rate their performance. But the most interesting bit of the article for those in the trenches is the explanation of why this irritating double standard exists.
Humor is a way to bond, de-stress, and even show off your smarts. Why would a good joke have bad outcomes for female professionals? The research showed that humor can be viewed either as "functional," meaning it's deployed for the sort of constructive purposes I mention above, or as "disruptive," essentially a time waster. Men's humor is seen as functional. Women's as disruptive.
That difference may all come back to stereotypes of women as generally less dedicated to work and more distractible. We see what we expect to see and, sadly, what many people expect to see from professional women is a frazzled wife or mother with only half her brain on the office. When a woman cracks jokes, therefore, she's judged to be less dedicated because that's what many people are primed to see.
Keep on being funny. It's not you who has to change.
The authors note that their study could only assess how strangers view women's humor. When it comes to dealing with a team over time, being hilarious may be a real assent, but when it comes to first impressions, jokes are a minefield for women.
Your initial response to that may be to make a mental note to keep things serious at your next speech or networking event, but, admirably, the authors suggest a different takeaway. Instead of asking women to change their perfectly lovely behavior, why don't we task ourselves with rooting out the ridiculous stereotypes that lead us to penalize it?
"This doesn't mean that women should refrain from humor, however. Instead, organizations and managers should instead increase awareness of this prejudice," they conclude. "By shedding light on how the generally positive aspects of humor are interpreted differently based on gender, we hope people will think twice about who they think is funny, and why, in the workplace."