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Witty Women Are Less Likely to Get Promoted Than Men

A new report finds that using humor in the workplace raises the status of male employees but has the opposite effect for women.
women business businesswoman laughing workplace

"The potential for women to advance in the workplace may be harmed by the use of humor."

Are you the office cut-up—the person who can't resist responding to a tedious presentation with a well-timed witticism? Do you wonder at times whether this behavior is helping or hurting your career?

According to a new study, it depends in part on whether you're a man or a woman.

A research team led by Jonathan Evans of the University of Arizona reports that using humor in the workplace raises the status of male employees, but has the opposite effect for women. The team argues that these divergent reactions are the result of ingrained gender stereotypes.

"The potential for women to advance in the workplace may be harmed by the use of humor," the researchers write in Journal of Applied Psychology. Being funny may "reduce their perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement."

The study featured two groups of American adults recruited online—the first consisting of 96 people, the second 216. The first group read the fictional resume of a clothing store manager named Sam, and then watched a video presentation during which "Sam" used humor.

Half saw a version in which Sam was a man, while the others saw a different version in which Sam was a woman. Afterwards, participants indicated the degree to which they felt Sam's humor helped or hindered the presentation.

"Female humor was judged as more disruptive than male humor," they write. "In contrast, male humor was judged as more functional than female humor."

Members of the second group viewed one of four versions of the video: One of the two noted above, or one in which either the male or female Sam made the same presentation minus the humorous asides. They then rated the presentation's effectiveness, estimated Sam's level of prestige within the organization, and indicated how likely they felt it was that Sam would advance up the company's ranks.

The researchers report that male Sam's perceived status was enhanced by humor, while female Sam's was diminished. Humorous male Sam was evaluated more positively than serious male Sam on several indicators, including leadership potential. The opposite was true for humorous female Sam.

What's behind these disparate results? Evans and his colleagues note that men are generally seen as rational and achievement-oriented. "These aspects of the male stereotype reinforce a positive interpretation of humor," they write.

In contrast, "working women are stereotyped as having lower dedication to work, because of their association with family responsibilities," they add. This makes colleagues and supervisors more inclined to view their use of humor in a negative light, signaling that women aren't taking work sufficiently seriously.

The researchers note that the study's participants "had no previous interactions with the manager," which meant they were not exposed to behavior that defies their gender stereotypes. A female manager known for "arriving early, staying late, or otherwise contributing to team performance" might, as a result, have her humor seen in a more positive light.

Of course, that's another example of women having to work extra hard just to level the playing field with their male counterparts. And that reality isn't funny at all.