Women in leadership roles often get penalized when they’re seen as acting too aggressive at work. They often walk a precarious tightrope, expected to act like a “leader” but also criticized for acting outside female stereotypes if they’re seen as being too dominant, too pushy, too self-promotional, too ambitious.
And according to a new study, the joke’s on them: Female leaders can apparently get dinged for being too funny on the job, too.
In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Colorado Boulder tested how humor is viewed when it comes from male versus female leaders giving a presentation. When a woman used humor, the study found, participants were more likely to view it as “disruptive” or distracting from the task at hand, while jokes cracked by men during the presentation were more likely to be seen as “functional” or helpful.
“The female humor was rated as more dysfunctional,” said Jon Evans, one of the researchers who co-authored the paper.
Context is key here, however. The researchers designed an experimental study where participants each watched one of four videos of a hypothetical retail manager — someone they didn’t know — making a store sales presentation. In two of the videos, the male and female “leaders” used a script without any humor; in the other two, they used workplace-appropriate jokes, such as cracks about drones delivering packages versus buying things at a store.
The humorous men were described as having higher status than the men who played it straight, while the inverse happened with the women. The jokes were more likely to be viewed as making the women seem less capable as leaders to the participants.
Evans and his colleagues used a concept from psychology called “parallel constraint satisfaction” theory to explain the effect they saw in the study. In a professional setting, research has shown that men are stereotyped as having “agency” — being task-focused, rational and focused on achievement. Other research has shown that women are stereotyped as having lower “agency” — having lower dedication to their jobs and being distracted by family responsibilities.
These are just stereotypes, of course, but the paper suggests they have profound effects, simultaneously influencing people’s perceptions of behavior, too. “When we form an impression about an individual, we’re using multiple sources of information, and these influence each other,” Evans said.
Because humor can be interpreted as a good or bad thing on the job — helping to defuse tension, say, or distracting from the real job at hand — the gender of the person affects how the jokes are viewed, he said.
Source: Washington Post