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Do Women Need to Be Funnier in the Boardroom?

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Does your boss crack you up at work? The answer may depend on manager's gender.

According to the Telegraph, research by Aston University professor of applied linguistics Judith Baxter showed that female bosses are widely perceived to be not funny and most their attempts at humour are met with uncomfortable silence.

Baxter's research consisted of an in-depth survey of 14 team meetings held in seven large companies over a period of 18 months. Seven meetings were led by male senior leaders while the other seven had female senior leaders presiding. The results showed that more than 80 per cent of women's jokes were met with silence while 90 per cent of those made by their male counterparts were immediately greeted with approval or better yet, outbursts of laughter.

It would be all too easy for senior women leaders who can relate to the situation to take the findings in good humour except for one thing: It does nothing to highlight their competence. Baxter herself admitted that her survey results bother her "because it reinforces essentialist attitudes about women in the workplace." She added: "My message is that masculine norms of speaking and interacting have positioned women leaders as generally less competent, so that women are partly on the defensive and this is reflected in the way they speak."

She found out, for example, that when women leaders made an attempt to be funny, they resorted to humour that can be labelled as "self-deprecating." Seventy per cent of the female professionals in her study used jokes that portrayed themselves negatively. Instead of eliciting laughter, it was seen as something "contrived, defensive, or just mean." Yet women leaders use this kind of humour because they feel that it is safer to laugh at themselves than others.

When men make jokes, however, it is done at the expense of others and this is still greeted with a positive response. Entrenched masculine boardroom dynamics require men to use humour to establish that they are capable of leading a team. There is a "tribe" behaviour at work that women who aspire to enter the hallowed circle of senior leaders, find difficulty connecting and joining.

Baxter said that there is a need for masculine norms to be challenged. She said that "this involves allowing women the space to speak and interact in a greater range of ways than they currently do. It means responding to funny women."

Does this mean that women who aspire for corporate leadership have to practice their jokes in front of the mirror? Not necessarily. Kathy Klotz-Guest, founder of a marketing communications firm, told Tina Vasquez of The Glasshammer that humour is an "attitude of fun." More than jokes, Klotz-Guest said it is also about "stories, lightening up, being improvisational and spontaneous and quick with a smile or witticism." She explained that women still need to acclimatize to a new climate. "They need to be themselves and use what works for them," she said.

What if you don't have a funny bone in your body? Well, Baxter says a little practice helps. Try "light, teasing banter" with colleagues, she recommends. Just make sure that you use these remarks at the appropriate times and places.

By Nicel Jane Avellana, contributor at r/ally, the mobile collaboration platform that lets you socialize your goals.

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