Humour: The “acceptable” way to tell women they’re less intelligent than men

Where I work I’m lucky enough to sit near two people who are very, very funny. It’s hard to put into words quite what makes them so amusing, but they have a genuine knack of making me, all our colleagues and, above all, each other laugh. It’s all down to their relationship with each other, and the banter, and, every now and then, the songs. One will start singing, then the other will join in, and suddenly they’re parodying Beyoncé in a manner that’s both original and tremendously well observed. All this sounds potentially very annoying, but it isn’t because it’s relatively infrequent and extremely well done. If we worked for some trendy, fake-liberal company like Apple or Ben and Jerry’s, they’d be in line for some annual bonus for being all-round office merriment makers. Or at least they would be, if they were men.

Their type of humour – light, almost silly, but concise, and based on the bringing together and filtering-down of countless snippets of knowledge – does, I think, require a huge amount of intelligence to pull off. It’s a level of intelligence that some might not expect to find in two women in their twenties. And hence some colleagues, men in particular, seem to find it a little strange. They laugh – it’s impossible not to – but then always end on some patronising, belittling note: “Tch! You two! You’re worse than my kids!” As if to say well, sure, you’re funny, but you probably don’t even know why.

We have funny men in our department too (hell, we’re just comedy central). The difference is, they’re not quite as funny (as are none of the other women, either), but also, no one accuses them of being like children. After all, that would be stupid. The humour is self-conscious; they know they’re playing the fool. Not like those crazy females, who don’t really have a clue how or why they’ve struck comedy gold. In any case, comedy geniuses or not, these women keep their humour under wraps when it comes to a boardroom presentation. It’s probably just as well.

Today’s Observer features a piece by Dan Boffey called “Why women’s jokes fall flat in the boardroom“, covering some research completed by linguistics academic Dr Judith Baxter:

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.

I read this and it makes me feel instantly miserable. What a quick, direct and effective way to undermine women. Just don’t laugh at their jokes. It’s guaranteed to make a person feel crap. It doesn’t surprise me that female humour is therefore also more self-deprecatory. What do you expect if you’re already in a hostile environment? You’d hardly want to put yourself out on a limb.

Some research into why women are less likely than men to ask for pay rises has suggested that this may, in part, be based on the fact that if they did behave in the same manner as their male counterparts, they would be perceived in a far more negative way and actually undermine their own progress. It’s no good telling a woman to be more like a man; act more like a man when you’re still expected to be a woman, and you’ll piss people off all the more. This is why Baxter’s own advice, based on her research, seems to me to shy away from what’s really required:

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.

Doesn’t this seem a little, well, patronising? Do women really need to learn the “right” type of humour? Or do we need to learn to respect women enough to appreciate their jokes?

Because I think humour is linked to intellect (one of the many, many reasons why Frankie Boyle isn’t funny), whenever people suggest women “just aren’t” as funny as men, I think it’s a way of saying that actually, deep down, they just aren’t as clever. It’s the new, acceptable way of doing it. They might outperform boys at school, they might be outnumbering men on degree courses, but hey, they just don’t make us laugh. It’s not their fault. It’s just the way they are. Hence we piss ourselves at Russell Brand but smile politely at all the crap “token women” who appear on panel shows. It doesn’t bother us that if these women were saying the same things as the men, we still wouldn’t find it as funny. Oh, it’s in the delivery, we’ll airily say. What part of “the delivery” do we mean? The part that comes with anything being said by someone with a higher-pitched voice? Or the part that comes with us assuming that whatever the subtext of a joke could have been, it probably isn’t there after all, because a woman’s unlikely to get it?

It’s hard to argue seriously about discrimination in humour. You can hardly order someone to find something funny, on the basis that it would be bigoted not to. Furthermore (furthermore! look how serious I’m being!) you can’t objectively measure how funny the telling of a joke is; you can only judge from the response, which can be clouded by all sorts of prejudice. Certainly, from what I see in daily life, women are every bit as funny as men because they’re every bit as clever and capable of making crazy associations, and of puncturing delusions, and of twisting language, and of basically using their minds for fun and to entertain others. We find them less funny only when being so would give them a kind of power.

Funny, that.

BTW, in case you’re wondering whether I’m ever funny in the workplace, no, I’m not. I sometimes make the odd stab at it, but I’m so tired and over-caffeinated people can’t tell whether I’m serious or not, so they end up getting a little bit scared. I do, however, have a good reputation in my workplace for being hilarious on Facebook. I have actually heard colleagues recommend that others “befriend” me, not because I’d be a good friend, but because my Facebook statuses are apparently a laugh a minute. I’m like the Mr Kipling of Facebook: uploads too many boring pictures of her children and won’t add any fish to your virtual aquarium, but she does make exceedingly witty observations about her crap life. It’s reached a point where I can’t take the pressure. What if I lose my touch? I won’t just let myself down, I’ll let down women in my workplace and dampen the “being funny” torch we seek to hold aloft. See, I bet men don’t have similar worries. No wonder they’re laughing.


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