(Harvard Business Review) Making Jokes During a Presentation Helps Men But Hurts Women
Most people want to know how they can effectively present ideas and be persuasive at work. A common piece of advice for presentations and winning over audiences is to be funny. For example, bestselling author of Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds and communications coach Carmine Gallo says, “Humor lowers defenses, making your audience more receptive to your message. It also makes you seem more likable, and people are more willing to do business with or support someone they like.” This advice has been echoed by a number of other authors.
On the surface, this seems sound. Plenty of research shows that leaders who use humor are able to increase their employees’ performance and job satisfaction. Hearing something funny or being amused can reduce stress, improve social relations, generate a positive mood, and increase motivation. Overall, humor appears to produce positive consequences for both the source and the audience.
However, 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.
As we crafted our study, we needed to first consider how gender stereotypes and different interpretations of humor at work might influence one another. Gender stereotypes, which are generally held beliefs regarding how men and women should behave, have long been used to help explain gender inequality in the workplace, and we suspected that they affect how employees interpret humor at work.
Specifically, we considered two different perceptions regarding the use of humor at work. One perception is that humor is a functional work behavior — a tool to facilitate work by helping lighten the mood, making difficult problems seem less daunting, and encouraging positive attitudes and healthy interactions. A second perception is that humor is disruptive — a distraction from the serious nature of work and demonstrates less commitment to work because one is perceived as interested in having fun and being entertaining. Our hunch was that the interpretation of humor as either functional or disruptive is affected by the gender of the humorous individual.
Why? Men are stereotyped as having high achievement orientation, ambition, and focus on task accomplishment. These expectations align closely with the functional interpretation of humor. Stereotypes of women include not only lower levels of achievement orientation and ambition, but also the expectation of increased family responsibilities. Because it is so difficult to dedicate time to both work and family responsibilities, this has led to the perception that women are less dedicated to work. In contrast to the male stereotype, the female stereotype aligns more closely with the disruptive interpretation of humor. The alignments are significant because research has demonstratedthat individuals tend to interpret behavior in a way that adheres to their expectations of how others behave. As such, we predicted that the use of the same humor by a man and a woman would be interpreted differently.
Our research included over 300 employees working in the United States in a variety of industries. They were recruited online. We performed two controlled experiments in order to isolate the effects of gender and humor. To accomplish this, we recruited two actors (one male and one female) to play the role of a retail store manager. This “manager” presented a quarterly performance report in front of an audience of two additional actors (one male and one female) playing the role of regional managers. We made video recordings of these presentations, which were delivered in a conference room with a full view of the presenter and the backs of the heads of the regional managers.
Each actor recorded two versions of the same presentation. One version included five humorous statements sprinkled throughout the presentation. For example, the store manager began the presentation with a short self-deprecating joke: “So, last night, my husband (wife) gave me some good advice about this presentation. He (she) said whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!” The other version was devoid of humor. We statistically controlled for potential differences in observers’ perceptions of actors’ physical attractiveness in each study.
In the first experiment, after participants reviewed the work history and résumé of the store manager (which was the same across all conditions), they watched a video of one of the two humorous presentations (randomly assigned) and evaluated whether the humor used by the manager was disruptive or functional. Consistent with our expectations regarding the influence of gender stereotypes, the woman’s use of humor was scored as less functional and more disruptive than the man’s use of humor. These results were consistent regardless of whether the participant was male or female; both males and females judged the actress’s humor more negatively.
Our first experiment provided evidence that male and female humor is interpreted differently. In the second experiment, we investigated how adding humor compares to not including any humor by using all four videos (male and female; humorous and not humorous). Participants again reviewed the work history and résumé of the store manager, watched one of the randomly assigned videos, and then evaluated the manager. When the male manager added humor to the presentation, he was given higher ratings of perceived status, job performance, and leadership capability compared to when he did not include any humor. However, the opposite occurred for the female manager. Adding humor led to lower ratings of perceived status, job performance, and leadership capability.
Written comments also reflected this difference. One participant noted that the humorous woman showed “poor judgment in jokes” and another noted that she tried “to cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes.” In contrast, participants who saw the humorous male presentation commented that “he is witty and likes to use humor to not seem like a stern speaker” and another said that “he adds a touch of humor to break up the monotony of his presentation.”
Our research suggests that all things being held equal, humor at work is interpreted differently for men and women. It is likely that women will be harmed by following the advice to be funny during work presentations and similar formal business settings, standing in contrast to the specific advice from authors who recommend using humor in business presentations.
It’s important to consider the specific context of our studies, however. These results may only hold for first impressions and initial reactions, as would be the case in a job interview or first meeting with a client. It is possible that women who have a reputation for arriving early, staying late, or otherwise signaling a higher dedication to work will avoid any negative outcomes because other information is available when assessing their leadership capability. Unfortunately, this also indicates that even if female leaders could cancel out these negative effects by providing additional signals of work commitment, women would be required to meet a higher performance standard before benefiting from the use of humor.
This doesn’t mean that women should refrain from humor, however. Instead, organizations and managers should instead increase awareness of this prejudice. Research shows that when people who value equality learn about situations that lead to bias, they become more vigilant and can refrain from succumbing to the bias. 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. Ultimately, this can help women be more uninhibited in their use of humor at work, and organizations will be more likely to enjoy the positive outcomes of humor.