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Women aren’t funny in the boardroom, says study

Sheryl Nadler
Shine On
June 4, 2012

Ladies, do you have a few self-deprecating jokes lined up to lighten the mood during your next work presentation? You might want to tuck those away for another time, says a new study out of the U.K.

Linguistics expert Judith Baxter conducted an 18-month study of seven large companies and found women tend to fall flat when attempting to use humour while leading workplace meetings, compared with a 90 per cent success rate for their male counterparts, reports the Guardian. The difference is in the type of humour being used and how it is received, says Baxter. Men use "flippant, off-the-cuff witticisms or banter," where women almost always use self-deprecating humour.

"Women would rather laugh at themselves on the whole than laugh at others because it is the safe option," says Baxter in the Times of India.

"But self-deprecation doesn't display authority. And although you are allowed to joke about yourself, others ... may well feel uncomfortable laughing at their boss's expense."

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Toronto-based comedian and producer of The Full Bawdy Comedy Show, Shelley Marshall, says there's a right and wrong way to deliver self-deprecating comedy and unfortunately, a lot of people — both men and women — tend to get it wrong.

"I can sit in an audience as a women and watch a self-deprecating comic, and when it's not coming from a place of truth and …  they become the joke rather than share in the energy of the joke, I'm uncomfortable. I find it odd."

She argues the same rules apply to the boardroom. If a woman feels pressured to lighten the mood, she may tell a few self-deprecating jokes. But, she says, if that women doesn't deliver her jokes in a way that somehow celebrates herself, it can become embarrassing.

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In a Huffington Post blog, Lynne Parker, founder and executive producer of Funny Women, agrees that men and women should pick their moments and get a feel for their audience.

"Without knowing who you are talking to, any attempt at humour runs the risk of falling flat, and you do have to choose your moment, carefully," she writes.

A lot has been written on the topic of women and humour. The perception is that women are not as funny as men. However, a study by the University of California from last year found that men are only marginally funnier than women.

The small study had undergraduate men and women write cartoon captions for 20 New Yorker cartoons in 45 minutes, by themselves in a quiet room. They were all instructed to be as funny as they could be. The captions were then rated by another group of students. In the end, the men's captions were not found to be funnier by a statistically significant amount.

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