Women often try to use self-deprecating humour to get their colleagues on-side but it raises few laughs
Humour is a staple part of any boardroom discussion, as viewers of the BBC’s The Apprentice will know. But research reveals that, while men benefit from the use of well-judged banter, the brand of humour used by leading businesswomen often leads to awkward silences and could be undermining their careers.
The claim is made by linguistics expert Dr Judith Baxter, who undertook an 18-month study into the speech patterns of men and women at meetings in seven big companies, including two in the FTSE 100. An analysis of the 600,000 words used during 14 meetings, seven led by a woman and seven by a man, found sharp differences between the use of humour by men and women in the boardroom – and how the jokes are received. Baxter discovered that the majority of male humour (80%) in business meetings takes the form of flippant, off-the-cuff witticisms or banter. About 90% of it receives an instant, positive response, usually as laughter.
Yet most female humour during the course of a meeting is self-deprecatory (70%) and more often than not (at least 80%) is received in silence, according to Baxter. Perhaps because of the poor reception accorded to women who used humour, men were also three times more likely to use jokes to lighten the mood in meetings they were leading.
Baxter, who is due to carry out further experiments on sex differences for a programme to be aired on BBC2 in September, said she believed the culture of male-dominated boardrooms was a challenge to women. 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.”
Hilary Devey, one of the business leaders on the BBC programme Dragons’ Den, who made her name in the haulage industry, said she recognised some of Baxter’s findings in her own career but believed humour based around self-deprecation could be a powerful tool. “The humour that I first encountered in the haulage sector was earthy and often confrontational, but by either giving as good as I got, or indulging in self-deprecation, it actually made people take me more seriously: breaking the tension before actually getting down to the real matters in hand. I once read that the British use the word ‘sorry’ in conversation in over 30 different ways that have absolutely nothing to do with apologising, and so too with self-deprecation: all is not quite what it seems.”
Devey added: “Don’t get me wrong, some people put themselves down all the time, and this goes beyond humour – they are just racked with self-doubt and probably need to pull themselves together and stop being so needy. However, for most British people, the key weapon in their arsenal of wit is that of self-deprecation: it is unexpected, punctures pomposity, shows humanity, and can often give you the upper hand as a result.”
Lynne Parker, who organises the Funny Women awards, runs workshops for women in business to give them confidence to use humour in their working day. She said: “The qualities men are supposed to have, we cannot. We are supposed to be submissive. Women are often frightened to use humour and can come across as austere and humourless. 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.”
Baxter, author of the study, added: “I am not saying somehow women are deficient. But culturally there are fewer role models out there for funny women too. There are a few, obviously – Ruby Wax, Sarah Millican is a new one that has popped up, and French and Saunders, for example – but if you compare that to male comedians there are hundreds more people can think of.”