Respect Equality

Using humor in the workplace can be tricky for some women, study finds

Cartoon team of man woman colleague characters working in coworking office space. Istock

Story at a glance

  • Researchers in a study analyzed how men and women react to humor in the workplace.
  • The study found both high and low-status men, as well as high-status women, were viewed more positively when using aggressive humor than lower-status women making the same comments.
  • Researchers also concluded the gender of a joke’s target played a role in the way the humor was received.

Using humor in the workplace can be especially challenging for women, as the perception of their jokes can be tied to their status and whom the humor is directed at, a recent study found.  

Christopher Robert, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, analyzed in a study how men and women react to humor in the workplace to determine the effect a person’s gender had on how their humor was received.  

Ninety-two college students were surveyed after reading several scenarios where men and women made humorous comments. The scenarios were varied to indicate the gender and status of person making the comment, the gender of the comment’s target and whether the expression was friendly or aggressive. Respondents were then asked to rate the foolishness of the comment.  

Researchers found both high and low-status men, as well as high-status women, were viewed more positively when using aggressive humor than lower-status women making the same comments.  

They also concluded the gender of a joke’s target also played a role in the way the humor was regarded.  

“Women who used humor directed toward a man were seen as positive,” Robert said in a news release. “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.” 


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Robert added that people should withhold immediate judgements and evaluate whether the person’s identity played a role in their initial reaction, noting “we even have inherent biases that influence how we view people who are using humor.”  

“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?’” 


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