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Research: being funny can pay off more for women than men

April 15, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

To explore how male and female humor is perceived, we conducted two studies in public presentation contexts with real-world speakers and audiences: First, three of the authors (Miron-Spektor, Bear, and Eliav) analyzed reactions to more than 2,400 TED and TEDx talks, in which leaders from various fields presented to live and online audiences. Based on audience ratings, independent evaluations, and online view counts, we found that female speakers who used more humor — which we measured by tracking how often the audience laughed — were more popular and perceived as more influential and inspiring than both less-funny women and comparably-funny men. This pattern held across a wide range of topics, various types of humor, and both larger TED events and smaller, local TEDx talks.

Take this 2015 TED talk from bestselling author Susan Cain, on the power of introverts. Her presentation was viewed 32 million times and was peppered with humor: “So I just published a book about introversion, and it took me about seven years to write. And for me, that seven years was like total bliss,” she quipped at one point. “But now, all of a sudden, my job is very different, and my job is to be out here talking about it, talking about introversion [laughter] … I call this my ‘year of speaking dangerously.’” Our evaluators rated Cain as highly competent, warm, and leader-like, and audience members similarly rated her as highly funny, inspiring, and persuasive.

Part of the reason for this effect is that regardless of gender, humor has been shown to convey both warmth and competence. As a result, it can help female presenters overcome the warmth-competence double bind that women so often face: In general, female leaders who exude warmth are perceived as less competent, while women who display competence are seen as less warm — and being perceived as both warm and competent is critical to wielding influence in many professional settings.

In fact, research has shown that unless they go out of their way to appear warm and friendly, women who speak in an assertive manner are often perceived as less likable, less influential, and more threatening than their male counterparts, but that when they do appear warm and friendly, their competence often comes into question. Humor offers an escape from this catch-22, enabling female speakers to project both warmth and competence at the same time. And indeed, we found that the funnier women in our TED talk study were perceived as both warm and competent, suggesting that effective humor may be the key to helping female leaders wield greater social influence.

Of course, TED talks are a very specific setting. To explore whether humor has a similar effect in other arenas, the other three authors (Huang, Milovac, and Lou) conducted a similar study in an entrepreneurial context. As part of an ongoing research project, we measured investor interest, judge responses, and independent evaluations for more than 200 startup pitches across five pitch competitions. We found that female founders’ startup pitches that were rated by an independent evaluator as less humorous were less likely to win competitions and be perceived positively by investors and judges than their equally unfunny male counterparts (likely due to other, more general forms of gender bias). But use of humor bridged this gender gap: Funnier pitches were equally likely to win, regardless of gender.

For example, when pitching her startup’s automated shipping container inspection system, founder Jennifer Ivens joked, “We also have an amazing team of experts that are backing our play. And of course, myself…I am an expert in container transportation. So believe me when I say, at Canscan, we check every box.”

These findings may seem particularly surprising in light of the body of research suggesting that women experience a backlash effect when they defy gender stereotypes related to the idea that women are (or should be) less dominant than men. But emerging research has shown that unlike with these stereotypes of dominance, women may be perceived favorably when they defy gender stereotypes related to agency, such as the assumptions that women are less intelligent or competent. Humor is associated with intelligence and competence, and so when female presenters violate the “women aren’t funny” stereotype by using humor effectively, they are viewed positively — as competent, diligent, and independent — rather than as domineering or abrasive.

To be sure, humor certainly isn’t always a good idea. It’s just one tool in a leader’s communication toolbox — and learning to wield it effectively requires awareness of the context. What works in a TED talk or a startup pitch may not work in the boardroom or at a press conference. But in public presentation contexts such as pitches, keynote addresses, or even conference panels and webinars, our research suggests that a bit of humor can help women come across as both warm and competent, ultimately boosting their influence and chances of success.

In addition, it’s also important to acknowledge that not all jokes work equally well for all speakers. The funny women in our studies didn’t tell the same jokes as their male counterparts did: These women’s humor tended to be unique, personal, specific to the situation, and based in their experiences. Effective presenters of any gender incorporate humor authentically, and that often means calibrating the content and manner of communication to fit their own style and identity.

But when done right, our studies demonstrate the power of humor to overcome bias against women and help them succeed. Too often, the pervasive “women aren’t funny” stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Women are told that they’re not funny, and so they’re deterred from using humor on the public stage. That means most of the funny people we see on public stages are men, further cementing the stereotype. But this harmful narrative also represents a major opportunity for women. Defying this gendered expectation triggers the element of surprise, and that, in turn, pays outsized dividends. Because women aren’t expected to be humorous, audiences perceive them that much more positively when they do use humor successfully — enabling these speakers to project the kind of warmth, competence, and influence that’s only possible when you manage to be truly funny.

by Ella Miron-Spektor, Julia Bear, Emuna Eliav, Li Huang, Melanie Milovac, and Eric Yuge Lou


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