Oh, this is serious. The Financial Times‘ 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, Kellaway wrote, 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 identify 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.…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 said 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, 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?