Gender bias makes humor at work tricky

"If someone is questioning someone's sense of humor, they should ask themselves, 'Would I be making this same judgment if the person using the humor looked more like me?'" says Christopher Robert.(Credit: Getty Images)

Gender and status affect how humor comes across at work, research suggests.

The findings show that humor in the workplace can be more challenging for women than for men. Factors include a woman’s perceived status in the office and whether her humor is directed towards other women.

The researchers surveyed 92 college students after they read workplace scenarios in which men and women made humorous comments. The researchers adjusted the scenarios so that the humorist was either a male or female, in a high or low status position, and they also varied whether the target of the humor was a male or female. In addition, some scenarios included humor that was more friendly or “affiliative” while others included aggressive humor. The researchers then asked the participants to determine how “foolish” they perceived the humorists to be.

One of the scenarios takes place at a meeting in which hospital personnel are discussing some of the challenges that resulted in a patient death. A female nurse stutters while trying to share her ideas to address a problem and is interrupted by an employee attempting to make humorous comment, poking fun at the fact that she can’t find her words.

In this instance, the researchers varied the status and gender of the person telling the joke. When high-status men, low-status men, and high-status women made the aggressive humorous comment, they were perceived more positively, but when a low-status woman made the joke she was perceived as being more foolish.

The researchers also analyzed how the gender of the target of the humorous comment affected how study participants viewed the person using humor.

“Women who used humor directed toward a man were seen as positive,” says study author Christopher Robert, associate professor at the University of Missouri who also is serving as the interim dean of the Trulaske College of Business. “But when a high-status woman used humor directed toward a woman of lower status in the workplace, she was seen as negative and was judged as more foolish.”

Robert says these findings should remind people to hold off their immediate judgments about people based on their use of humor and consider if these judgements are influenced by any preconceived notions about the identity of the individuals in question.

“This research amplifies the fact that we even have inherent biases that influence how we view people who are using humor,” Robert says. “If someone is questioning someone’s sense of humor, they should ask themselves, ‘Would I be making this same judgment if the person using the humor looked more like me?'”

A paper on the findings appears in the Journal of Managerial Psychology. Coauthor is Timothy Moake, an assistant professor of management at Middle Tennessee State University.

Source: University of Missouri