When my editor asked me to write a humor piece in response to Monday’s Harvard Business Review study, “Making Jokes During Presentation Helps Men but Hurts Women,” I saw red. Not because of my editor (she is one of the best, dare I say, funniest women I know), but at the study itself. I’m no Harvard grad, but what a stupid study. What a totally dumb, petty, stupid stupid stupid, pointless, hateful, hurtful study.
Here’s how the study went down: They got two actors (one male, one female) to lead two presentations—one with the jokes including, “So, last night, my husband (wife) gave me some good advice about this presentation. He (she) said whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!” The other presentation was “devoid of humor.” (LOL, wasn’t the first???) In short, the study found that—well, here’s a dumb blurb:
“Consistent with our expectations regarding the influence of gender stereotypes, the woman’s use of humor was scored as less functional and more disruptive than the man’s use of humor.”
Consistent with our expectations…
Again—no Harvard grad—but like, isn’t it kinda weird to go into a study being like, “OK, so we know women suck at being funny based on a scale from zero to FuckJerry (women being zero, FuckJerry being FuckJerry), but let’s write some dad jokes and see if an actress can kill at this open mic we’re disguising as a controlled experiment”?
Sure, the authors think they’re doing us a solid. They say they’re publishing these findings in hopes that “shedding light on how the generally positive aspects of humor are interpreted differently based on gender, we hope people will think twice about who they think is funny, and why, in the workplace.”
I may not have gone to Harvard, but I’ve worked in lots of offices. Some were toxic wastelands. Some were Gardens of Workplace Edens. And if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that people at work will do lots of things. They will count down the seconds from 11:59 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. until they can sprint to Chipotle. They will roll their eyes when tasked with an extra project. They will wonder how your weekend was and ask you to “remind them next time you have an improv show!!!” But they will never—not once, not ever—think twice about who they think is funny, and why, in the workplace.
Simply asking the question causes more harm than good. To raise the question means you were wondering yourself. To think sexist thoughts is to be sexist. To tell women to tone down their personalities is not a public service. It’s sexist and backward.
And honestly, I feel sad about this. I think about all the times I’ve been the only girl in the room, throwing other girls under the bus to make myself feel like I’m part of the boys’ club. I remember the first time I made a popular boy laugh in Spanish class. That was my access point. I was always emotionally young for my age. Looking back, I must have known I was never going to keep up with the kids who were already dating and doing other stuff in junior high. I might not have been allowed to shave my legs, but I could make people laugh. I was the funny one. It was a super power. I harnessed my sarcasm. I cast myself as the funny wing-woman. I polished my shield and held it up to protect myself.
Eventually, humor as armor becomes exhausting. You shed the sarcasm, you find your people doing long-form improv in college, you move back to Chicago to immerse yourself in the theaters where the greats came from and you fall in love with comedy. You spend hundreds of hours in empty storefronts-turned-rehearsal-s
Today, the funniest people I know are the women in my life—my best friends, my mom, my colleagues. They are nuanced and specific. They listen intently. They laugh emphatically. They build on and ping-pong an idea like architects, working fluidly together to erect a world of our jokes that is so developed, so thorough we can live in it for a while, like a house.
Being funny is a learned social skill. Laughter is a contract—if you are brave enough to make light of something, I will gift you this wonderful noise. It is the most human form of acceptance. But Harvard Business Review tells us women shouldn’t try to be funny because they won’t be accepted.
What I think HBR forgets is that women are used to not being accepted. Women of color, even more so. It wasn’t until 1963 that eight women were able to enroll at Harvard Business School in a class of 676 men. And it wasn’t until 1969 that the first African-American woman, Lillian Lincoln, graduated from HBS. In her own bio, Lincoln writes of her experience at Harvard:
“I can’t say I faced overt racism or sexism—it was more a feeling of being invisible. I didn’t feel as if I belonged. I was intimidated by the requirement to participate in class, and most of the final grade depended on it. Class discussions were usually dominated by very aggressive men. As an introvert, it was difficult for me. Some male students expressed the feeling that women should not be taking a seat intended for a man.”
As Lady Gaga so often says, there can be 99 people in a room, but only one of them needs to matter. What if your joke is meant for the one Lillian Lincoln in your lecture hall? Who cares if everyone else listening thinks your humor is “disruptive” or “in poor taste” simply because you’re not a man?
Reading this study made me realize that the glass ceiling will be much harder to break than I thought—especially because being funny at work has worked for me. Being dubbed a personality gave me the opportunity to host a daily Instagram series, write these kinds of stories, consult on bigger projects and overall, win the trust and esteem of people I so wanted to win the trust and esteem of.
And while the science and methods used may be sound (I literally do not know because, again, I did not go to Harvard), there is so much this study gets wrong or omits. The jokes they wrote for the actors, for one, are not funny. And assuming that the same joke that works for a man will work for a woman fails to take other factors into account. (Like, it’s less funny than it is creepy when a woman says her husband forbade her from making jokes.)
What I’ve learned laughing and joking with people of any and all genders at work, is that the most resounding humor is done with empathy. Or that the best jokes are responses to the collective heartbeat of a room—or the one beating so wildly on its own you can hear it between the silences of your own sentences.
I can only hope that the next time I take 45 minutes out of my life to listen to a presentation on month-over-month sales—45 dreadfully boring minutes out of my already-brief life on this tiny blue pebble suspended in the strange fabric of this ever-expanding stupid stupid stupid universe—I hope you at least try to make me laugh.