The stereotype that “women aren’t funny” pervades pop culture. But is it true? The authors analyzed more than 2,400 TED and TEDx talks, as well as more than 200 startup pitches, and found that female speakers who used more humor were more popular and regarded who are more influential and inspiring than less funny women and equally funny men. . They suggest that this is because humor conveys warmth and competence, thereby helping female presenters escape from the warmth-competitive double bind that often prevents women from exercising influence in professional settings. Of course, humor is not effective in every situation — and jokes that work well for one speaker in one context may not be as effective in another. But when done right, the authors’ research shows the power of humor to overcome prejudice against women and help them succeed in public arenas.
Humor is a critical component of effective leadership. But is it equally effective for all leaders? In some professional contexts, studies have proposed that telling jokes can be good for men but bad for women. Yet our recent research suggests that funny women may actually be perceived more positively than pop culture stereotypes usually suggest.
To find out how men and women perceive humor, we conducted two studies in public presentation contexts with real-world speakers and listeners: First, three of the authors (Miron- Spektor, Bear, and Eliav) examined reactions to more than 2,400 TED and TEDx talks, where leaders from various fields present 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 considered more influential and inspiring than less funny women. and comparably-funny men. This pattern is made on a wide range of topics, different types of humor, and both large TED events and smaller, local TEDx talks.
Take this 2015 TED talk from best-selling author Susan Cain, on the power of introverts. His presentation was viewed 32 million times and was filled with laughter: “So I just published a book about introversion, and I’ve been writing for about seven years. And for me, seven years is like absolute happiness,” he joked at one point. “But now, all of a sudden, my job is very different, and my job is to go out there talking about it, talking about introversion. [laughter] . it’s so inspiring, inspiring, and engaging.
Part of the reason for this effect is that regardless of gender, humor is created shown in the explanation both warmth and competence. As a result, it helps female presenters overcome the heat-competitive double bind that women always facing: In general, female leaders who display warmth are seen as less competent, while women who display competence are seen as less warm – and being perceived as both warm and competent is essential to exercising influence over many professional settings.
Indeed, RESEARCH REVEALS It has been 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 desirable, less influential, and more threatening than their male counterparts, but if they appear warm and friendly. , their competence is often questioned. Humor offers an escape from this catch-22, enabling female speakers to display warmth and competence at the same time. And in fact, we found that the funniest women in our TED talk study were perceived as both warm and competent, suggesting that effective humor may be key to helping women leader with a lot of social influence.
Of course, TED talks are a specific situation. To check if 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 in five pitch competitions. We found that female founders’ startup pitches rated by an independent evaluator as less funny were less likely to win competitions and be perceived positively by investors and judges than their equally non-funny counterparts. male counterparts (probably due to other, more common forms of gender bias. ). But the use of humor bridges this gender gap: Funnier pitches win equally, regardless of gender.
For example, when setting up her startup’s automated shipping container inspection system, founder Jennifer Ivens joked, “We also have an amazing team of experts backing our game. 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 body of research suggests that women experience a backlash effect when they challenge gender stereotypes related to the idea that women are (or should be) less dominant than men. but emerging research shows that unlike these stereotypes of dominance, women can be perceived favorably if they oppose gender stereotypes related to agency, such as assumptions that women are less intelligent or competent. It’s humor COMPANIONS with intelligence and competence, and so when female presenters break the “women are not funny” stereotype by using humor effectively, they are viewed positively – as competent, hardworking , and independent – rather than as a domineering or abrasive.
Sure, humor isn’t always a good idea. It’s just one tool in a leader’s communication toolbox — and learning to use it effectively requires contextual awareness. What works in a TED talk or a startup pitch may not work in the boardroom or in a press conference. But in public presentation contexts like pitches, keynote addresses, or even conference panels and webinars, our research suggests that a little humor can help women come across as warm and engaging. ability, which ultimately increases their influence and chances of success.
In addition, it is also important to recognize that not all jokes are equally good for all speakers. The funny women in our studies did not tell the same jokes as their male counterparts did: This women’s humor tended to be unique, personal, situation-specific, and based on their experiences. . Effective presenters of any gender embrace humor authentically, and that often means calibrating the content and method of communication to fit their own style and identity.
But when done right, our studies show the power of humor to overcome prejudice against women and help them succeed. Generally, the WIDESPREAD “Women are not funny” stereotype has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Women are told that they are not funny, and therefore they are prevented from using humor on the public stage. That means most of the funny people we see on public stages are men, further reinforcing the stereotype. But this destructive narrative also represents a great opportunity for women. Defying this gendered expectation creates the element of surprise, and that, in turn, pays huge dividends. Because women are not expected to be funny, audiences perceive them more positively when they use humor successfully – enabling these speakers to display the kind of warmth, competence, and influence that is only possible. if you can be really funny.