Female humour is seen as dysfunctional in the workplace compared to men who are funny (or try to be) in work settings, according to a study by researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Colorado at Boulder.

The researchers tested how humour is viewed by co-workers when delivered from a male leader as opposed to a female leader, specifically when during a presentation. When a woman used humour, participants were more likely to see it as disruptive or distracting, while jokes made by men were considered as functional to the task at hand and even helpful.

Read: Is there a place for humour at work?

“Gender plays an important role in understanding when using humour at work can have costs for the humour source,” stated the study. “Humour has the potential to be interpreted as either a functional or disruptive work behaviour. . . . Gender stereotypes constrain the interpretation of observed humour such that humour expressed by males is likely to be interpreted as more functional and less disruptive compared to humour expressed by females.”

These differences, noted the study, have implications for workplace performance evaluations and assessments of how capable a person would be in a leadership role.

“People are treated differently along gender lines,” says Geoff Leonardelli, an associate professor at the Rotman School of Management and the department of psychology at the University of Toronto. “It does create this kind of disruptive, unfair environment — a psychologically unsafe environment.”

The research, he says, identified existing stereotypes about men and women, which shape how we interpret behaviour, even when humour is healthy and positive and intended to provide an enjoyable moment that releases tension and moves a group forward.

Read: Editorial: We are woman: A call for gender diversity, pay equity and workplace mentorship

“Another thing that could be happening is that the joke just wasn’t seen as funny,” says Leonardelli. “And that’s a different thing, because if the joke wasn’t seen as funny, well, we also know from the literature people will then feel it’s disruptive because it just didn’t do what it was intended to do.”

And this, he says, creates a lowered sense of status for the joke teller because they annoyed the group with a joke that wasn’t worth sharing.

“Perhaps that seems to be consistent with their reasoning that men are viewed as more energetic and therefore their jokes must be with that aim in mind, right? It’s kind of like, ‘Oh, I don’t know why they they made this joke, but it must be for the greater social good,’ because we see leaders as men and men must be doing this to help the group move forward.”

Read: Accenture rolls out inclusive leadership, unconscious bias training for new staff

The irony, he says, is there’s plenty of evidence to suggest women are perhaps even more effective in leadership roles and at maintaining forward momentum for their teams. He noted other research has demonstrated teams are most effective when they’re comprised of more women.

So should women business leaders avoid humour in the workplace? Leonardelli certainly hopes not.

“I’ve enjoyed many a hearty laugh from many women, so I certainly hope it’s not the takeaway, and I don’t want that to be the takeaway for people who get exposed to this research,” he says. “If anything, I think this requires us to continue working at changing the norms we operate under, and people’s implicit beliefs about leadership and gender. . . . Women are just as effective, or more effective as leaders, that they can make a joke and time it well and do it in such a way to help the group move forward.”

Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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