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Are Women Really Not Funny?

Vivia Chen

January 21, 2013


Oh, this is serious. The Financial Times's Lucy Kellaway points out a truly distressing phenomenon: People don't laugh at women's jokes. In fact, she says, "nearly 80 percent of women’s jokes in board meetings fall entirely flat." 

That's based on research by Judith Baxter, a linguistic specialist and head of the English department at the United Kingdom's Aston University. For the study, Baxter patiently sat through untold hours of boring board meetings at seven big companies, writes Kellaway, and discovered a huge gender gap in the way colleagues (male and female) respond to women's attempts at humor:

She found that more than three-quarters of women’s jokes tended to be met by stony silence, while men’s were greeted with great hilarity. The men engaged in flippant quips and rough banter; the women went for jokes that were too self-deprecating, and often ended up sounding defensive or downright horrid.

If you've ever been the sole woman on a panel with a bunch of men, you might identity with the findings. I've been there, and let me tell you, the boys really do get all the laughs. And it's not because they have wittier material. All they have to do is crack a knowing smile, arch their eyebrows, or utter two words like "You bet!" or "No kidding," and the room goes into hysterics. Next to them, I always feel like their straitlaced foil.

But why should we care about all this? Well, it points out two salient facts: Women are still having a hell of a time earning points for being "likable" and "relatable." Plus, it shows that people don't consider women important enough to laugh at their jokes. As Kellaway explains it:

If laughter varies with gender, it varies even more with power. The single fastest way of understanding the balance of power and alliances in any group is by looking at who is laughing —and not laughing—at whose jokes. You only need to watch the Queen or Prince Charles meeting ordinary people to note that even the lamest pleasantry is greeted by gales of laughter. So, if other board members don’t laugh when their women colleagues crack a joke, it may not be because the joke isn’t funny but because boards can be hierarchical places and women are too low in the pecking order to command much in the way of fawning laughter.

In an interview in the Telegraph, Baxter says that male managers deploy humor "to demonstrate and display their leadership of a team," and that "their male subordinates will also use 'display' humor to impress a male boss, because it shows they are on the same wavelength."

It seems that one of the most charming forms of leadership—disarming people through humor—just isn't open to women. Which means that even if you are a natural Tina Fey or Lucille Ball, you won't have much to gain if you try to crack jokes at your company or law firm.

So, what does Baxter recommend for women on the humor front? 

They should learn to develop the running gag or light, teasing banter with male and female colleagues at appropriate moments such as the beginning and ends of meetings, passing in the corridor, or while making a cup of tea.

Learn the art of "light, teasing banter" while making tea? Seriously?  


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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Kate M, the other people in the room were fools, that was funny.

This is a personally familiar situation, over many years and various workplaces. Men have a hearty bon homie that seems so natural, casual. Probably due to some inscrutable evolutionary adaptation, alpha-male dominance behavior...!

I would make one suggestion. Light humor that involves mathematics, computing or the physical sciences is often well-received. Those who do not understand emulate those who do. Those who DO understand seem to react almost reflexively, perhaps as a result of many years of exposure to math-type jokes.

As the author said, it is less about humor than the reaction elicited.

Women are not funny. Especially women lawyers.

A friend, an extremely witty female associate, had been part of a team that slaved for months putting together a huge transaction. As lawyers and their clients shuffled through a pre-closing meeting, one of the principals arrived and announced the deal had died. My friend observed, "This feels like coitus interruptus." No one laughed.

I love this. Because I gave up cracking jokes in the office long ago. Yet I have a male peer who blurts out the lamest lines in meetings and gets waves of laughter, mostly from the females.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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