Hardly a day goes past without another discussion of boardroom gender inequalities. However, the latest study by Dr Judith Baxter raises a novel point as to why women may struggle in climbing the career ladder: their sense of humour.
Linguistics expert Dr Baxter undertook an 18 month study into the speech patterns of men and women at meetings in seven big companies, including two FTSE 100 firms. She found that 80% of male humour in business meetings took the form of flippant, off-the-cuff witticisms or banter with about 90% of it receiving an instant positive response, usually laughter. This is in contrast to female humour during the course of a meeting of which 70% is self-deprecating and at least 80% is received in silence.
Dr Baxter’s research shows that the different ways that the different genders use humour can cause a further challenge to women in leadership roles. She said: “My research has shown that male managers use humour to demonstrate and display their leadership of a team. Their male subordinates will also use ‘display’ humour to impress a male boss, because it shows they are on the same wavelength. It is part of leadership ‘tribe’ behaviour which women find hard to join. When women managers use humour it can misfire. This is partly because it is less culturally acceptable for women to use humour and partly because women haven’t traditionally been part of the leadership tribe. It is not that women are less funny: they tend to use humour differently. They are more comfortable with using humour in pairs with a friend and less as a means to manage people. When they do, their humour can appear arch, contrived, defensive or occasionally, just mean.
“One type of humour women leaders do use more than men is self-deprecating humour... Women would rather laugh at themselves on the whole than laugh at others because it is the safe option.
“What should senior women do about it? They should learn to develop the running gag or light, teasing banter with male and female colleagues at appropriate moments such as the beginning and ends of meetings, passing in the corridor, or while making a cup of tea.”
But is Dr Baxter’s advice really practical? Can a person, male or female, learn to be funny? Lynne Parker certainly thinks so. She organises workshops for women in business to give them confidence to use humour in their working day. She says “I am not expecting women to go into boardrooms to tell one-liners but it is all about timing, knowing when it is appropriate. Good comedians are very cognisant of their environment – it is about everyday life and what is going on about them. And whether you are a man or woman you should be aware of that in the boardroom.”
With the current focus on getting more women into top business roles, it is interesting to be aware of the fact that there may be more social barriers in play beyond those normally considered. However, whether this knowledge can help increase the number of women on boards definitely remains to be seen.