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Humor and Women in Leadership

Updated: Feb 5

In a recent HBR article entitled “Research: Being Funny Can Pay Off More for Women Than Men,” the authors explore the notion that being funny may be beneficial to women in leadership. “In some professional contexts,” they write, “studies have suggested that telling jokes may benefit men but harm women. Yet our recent research suggests that funny women may in fact be perceived more positively than pop culture stereotypes often suggest.”

Can Humor Help Women in Leadership?

HBR’s research showed that the benefit of being humorous helped women in some circumstances, such as TED talks, where women who were more humorous were perceived as being more influential. But that same humor seemed to backfire in entrepreneurial settings, as serious pitches were more likely to earn the trust of investors.

The Humor Opportunity

Humor, for women leaders, is something that can be used in certain situations for engagement and impact, but it’s not always considered appropriate. The takeaway from the article is that the stereotype that women aren’t funny prevents women from using humor, so that most of the humor we see is from men. But the authors point out that “this harmful narrative also represents a major opportunity for women. Defying this gendered expectation triggers the element of surprise, and that, in turn, pays outsized dividends.”

Making Humor Work

Many studies that seem to make it appear that women can’t successfully use humor are basing their results on surveys in which the respondents don’t personally know the individuals being evaluated. When you study women leaders in context with their teams, humor suddenly offers a much bigger opportunity. “But in a setting where you’re unknown to your audience — a sales presentation at a trade show, a cold call to a new client, even a job interview — women may want to roll out the laugh lines more cautiously.”

How to Incorporate Humor

Incorporating humor into your leadership style may feel uncomfortable if you’ve been enculturated to believe that being humorous or telling jokes is inappropriate. With this in mind, Solutions For Resilience recommends first noticing your humor preferences and then learning not to take yourself too seriously.

It can take practice to become comfortable with humor, and as with any leadership tool at your disposal, you need to know when humor can best be used to your advantage. And while some studies do show that women are taken less seriously than men when measured by their humor, it is an important skill to master and use nonetheless.

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