Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

Let’s Make Laughter Genderless

A number of years ago I attended a presentation hoping to learn how to incorporate more humor in my speeches. What I learned astounded me: female comediennes have more trouble getting laughs than men. That recognition stirred my desire to support women stand-ups and was part of the reason I started watching the series, ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ about a 60’s New York housewife with a knack for comedy.

I don’t just want to see and laugh at the world from a man’s point of view. Like Amy Schumer, I believe that the act of being a female comedienne is an act of feminism, proving that a woman’s comedic voice is as valuable as a man’s.

Yet, recently released research from University of Arizona, shows women have a long way to go. It found that the credibility of a man who tells a joke in an office presentation goes up. He is applauded for using humor while it is the reverse for women. When a woman tells a joke, her credibility goes down and she is penalized.

How can that be? Our subconscious bias says that men are ambitious and focused on getting results, so a little humor is considered a mild and enjoyable deviation. For women, our subconscious bias says they have more family responsibilities and are less dedicated to work, so their jokes are considered disruptive to getting the job done.

The authors of the study suggested that the only women who could use humor effectively at work were those who worked longer hours and delivered superior results (how unfair is that?). They also point out that this research needs to be considered by managers to help reduce prejudice.

Any research that raises our awareness and keeps us from succumbing to unfair stereotypes is important, but it is detrimental to women to suggest they stop laughing in order to increase their perceived performance. Laughter has too many benefits, both personally and professionally. The real question is how do women get the benefits of laughter while disrupting the system?

I love to laugh and consider it time spent with the gods. It raises my vibration and makes my day worth living so it is very important for me to find humor in the worst of circumstances. Carol Burnett famously said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” and my Mother had a similar sentiment. With every seemed catastrophe she would say, “Don’t worry, this will make for a great story later”.

We all need to laugh, not only for our mental health but because it has true healing power, lessening people’s pain. The Mayo Clinic says laughter increases your intake of oxygen rich air and stimulates air circulation, amongst other healing benefits.

At the office, humor provides many individual advantages for us such as boosting engagement, creativity and productivity. When working on teams it can help ease the tension when establishing boundaries or standing up for yourself. It also shows that you are approachable and helps establish common ground with others.

When administrators look like they are enjoying themselves, they set the company culture that it is a fun place to work so it is important for managers, regardless of gender to encourage, smiling, pleasure and laughter.

The key is to find the humor in your life for yourself, NOT because you want to be considered funny by others. That never works (as I am reminded each time I try to tell a joke). It is much more effective to tell a story and find funny things in what you observe in your daily life. When you find something delightful and share it with others, you feel better and it will rub off onto others. That will make you appealing as we all like people that make us feel better.

For example, Midge from ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ didn’t even realize she was doing stand-up when she gave her first performance. She simply grabbed a microphone and started sharing her personal experiences. People loved her authenticity because every story was real, and they could relate to it themselves.

People don’t have to roll in the aisles with gales of laughter, they simply must chuckle or even smile inside. Never plan to make people laugh. Instead, see humor for your own pleasure and let the laughter happen. I also notice that people take a cue from me, if I laugh, they often do too. Yet, it doesn’t matter because I have already had a great release.

By sharing humor with others, I develop a ‘conspiracy of comedy’. It becomes natural to spend time with people who laugh readily, and this makes it easier for everyone to participate. When we laugh together it has a ripple effect because humor is contagious.

‘Mirror neurons’, which are important in early human development, allow babies to mimic facial and emotional responses and fire in response to sensory input. It is just like when someone yawns and others in a room then yawn as well. Those are mirror neurons at work. Smiling and laughter activate mirror neurons in the brain of primates and humans. This is why sitcoms often include laugh tracks – hearing the laughter makes us laugh. So, laugh and watch: others will join you.

I encourage all women to find humor in their lives and to share their stories with others. When we do it for ourselves, we are not only experiencing the many benefits of laughter personally, we are also saying that we aren’t going to change- it is the system that has to change and like those motor neurons, it will take a cue from us. Let’s make laughter genderless!