The research on gender bias is clear: women in the workplace—and in life more generally—are told they shouldn’t negotiate too hard or be forceful or assertive. They should focus on likability, and on expressing their maternal nature through helping others. They should not speak too loudly or authoritatively. The list goes on.
Taly Reich, an associate professor of marketing at Yale SOM, says that such research is important: fixing the problems of bias requires first understanding where and in what forms it appears. But at a certain point, she says, she had seen enough.
“I was worn out with all these papers about how women always get the short end of the stick,” she says. “It made me feel helpless, so I actively tried to figure out if there are situations where women don’t get penalized simply for being women—where, in fact, they get the benefit of the doubt.”
The hunt proved fruitful. In a study co-authored with Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto and Yale SOM PhD student Alexander Fulmer, Reich found that women whose jokes fall flat are treated more leniently than men in settings where connection with other people is the primary goal.
“You can use humor to connect with people, for self-enhancement, for power. It allowed the people we surveyed to project whatever stereotypes they hold about women or men on to the situation.”
Humor provides a view into the complexity of gender stereotypes, Reich says.
“What’s nice about humor is that it can be used in a variety of ways, and for a variety of objectives,” Reich says. “You can use it to connect with people, you can use it for self-enhancement, you can use it for power, and so it allowed the people we surveyed to project whatever stereotypes they hold about women or men on to the situation they were reading about.”
The researchers began by presenting participants with the story of a first date gone awry. Some learned about a scenario in which a woman cracks jokes all night despite indications that the man she is with isn’t enjoying the jokes; he leaves after the first drink. Gender roles are reversed in the other scenario, presented to other participants: the man cracks jokes all night despite a lack of interest from his date, a woman, and then she leaves after the first drink.
Survey participants were asked how big a mistake they thought the joke-teller had made and how competent and likeable they thought he or she was. On average, participants who heard about a woman who repeatedly misfired with humor on a first date said that she had made a mistake with a magnitude of 3 on a 7-point scale; for men, the mistake was judged to be significantly larger—4 on the 7-point scale. Women were also perceived to be more competent and likable in the wake of humor misfire.
Subsequent experiments using variations on the scenario—portraying same-sex couples, for example—confirmed that women are more likely to be judged leniently in this situation.
At work behind this result is a favorable bias that people hold about women, Reich says: that they are more attentive to other people, and less interested in individual advancement. The humor they deployed on these dates was colored by this bias; it was seen as an effort, albeit a failed one, to advance communal goals. The humor deployed by men was instead tinged by stereotypes about self-advancement; their efforts were not seen as an appropriate match with the communal context of a date.
“There is the goal of the situation, and then there is the goal that I ascribe to the man or the woman telling jokes,” Reich says. “In these studies, if I’m a woman, I’m seen as wanting to connect, and I’m using humor to do this rather than trying to enhance myself, and so I’m given the benefit of the doubt.”
The researchers also tested whether the findings held in contexts beyond a date. What happens if a manager, for instance, cracks jokes during a team-building exercise with interns and two of the six interns, so put off by the jokes, leave during the presentation? Here, again, women were viewed more leniently. The results even held when Reich and her colleagues shifted the setting to a presentation among law enforcement officers. Though the job is stereotypically male, the overarching goal of the situation—the connection necessary during a presentation—favored stereotypically female traits.
“I was surprised at how robust these findings were,” she says. “No matter what we did, it was hard to shut off the effect.”
For Reich, the results suggest adjustments that both men and women can make to their behavior. Men, she says, should tread carefully when deploying humor in community-oriented situations. If jokes aren’t landing, then it may be best to find a different tack; persisting with humor could have strongly negative implications not just about the presenter’s sense of humor, but competence and likability as well.
Women students, concerned about bias, have asked Reich whether they should shy away from jokes during presentations. The short answer is: no, not if it feels natural.
On the other hand, women should feel more comfortable using humor, and even making mistakes with humor. Reich teaches a course in public speaking and noted that women students, concerned about bias, have asked her whether they should shy away from jokes during presentations. The short answer is: no, not if it feels natural.
“If you’re inclined to use it but afraid about failing, then you shouldn’t be so concerned,” she says. “I don’t know exactly how to say it, but maybe it’s this: men, pay more attention to your audience; women, go crazy.”