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Women, Humour and Power - Review Celebrates International Women's Day

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As another International Women's Day (Saturday 8 March) approaches, a vast and diverse array of women's organisations, movements and charities are focused on getting their messages of equality and justice out to the world.

The day has extended into more of a week - my own company, Funny Women, is running nearly a week of shows, workshops and presentations over three different festivals and conferences - and I have just had an email from Refuge, a charity I am proud to support, urging us to celebrate women and their achievements for nearly a month - from International Women's Day itself on Saturday 8 March to Mother's Day on Sunday 30 March!

In amidst all this 'noise' it is hard to get some clarity about what we need to be focusing on as women. In Western society women have already assumed positions of great power and been a catalyst for change over the last century - I am of a generation and cultural background that has been brought up to believe optimistically that we are not held back by our gender.

A large proportion of the world's purse strings are now in the hands of some highly competent women like Angela Merkel the German Chancellor, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund and Janet Yellen of the US Federal Reserve. Yet men still dominate and young women like the incredible 16 year old Malala Yousafzai get shot for wanting an education. It is such an oddly opposed world for women and one that I am most curious to observe and study.

Taking this on board, last year we teamed up with another amazing charity Womankind Worldwide to run an event where we discussed, "The place of women in society and how humour defines us", and then celebrated with a comedy line-up representing women from all around the world. The resulting podcast is still on line for your listening pleasure and the themes are still being discussed with our community and beyond.

We wanted to explore these themes in more depth this year and have had the amazing privilege to work with the University of East London's Centre of Excellence for Women Entrepreneurship as part of the Make It Global campaign last November. So we commissioned a review of existing research about women, humour and power in the workplace. You can read the full report which was completed by Rachel Densham, a masters student at the School of Psychology, UEL, under the supervision of Dr Sharon Cahill HERE.

The findings reveal some intriguing changes within the workplaces of the western world. Some of the media coverage will be startlingly familiar, for example, the infamous article that Christopher Hitchins wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007, entitled 'Why Women Aren't Funny', still comes up in almost every search engine and other articles new to my eyes straddle the surprising misogyny of the 1970s with today's enlightened take on women being comfortable with using humour.

We set out to assess the role and function of humour in the workplace and specifically identify how women use it to communicate and enhance their status. In fact, do they use it? What are the parameters of humour in a professional environment for women? Can we use humour to boost our reputations, enhance confidence and make our performances at work memorable without trivialising our capabilities?

The resulting review looks at the type of humour engaged in the workplace and beyond, its function within organisations and the appreciation of humour taking into account the 'Gender Gap'. It is rounded off with an exploration of leadership, women and humour.

In the review, humour is defined as an 'intrinsically powerful act' and 'joke telling is an exceptionally aggressive form of humour' which makes it more masculine in nature. Recent research suggested that female bosses are less likely to make jokes in the boardroom and when they did 80% of them were received silently! Men's boardroom jokes get a belly laugh, with 90% of them being met with a positive response.

Joke tellers are seen as high status within groups - having a high level of influence and maintaining boundaries of 'in' groups and diminishing the power of their less garrulous contemporaries. Workplace humour is affiliative, self-enhancing, self-defeating and sometimes aggressive in nature. All have the propensity to bond either positively or negatively wherein lies the power that humour can bestow.

Negative humour can endear - the art of self-deprecation is well deployed by many public figures. Regina Barreca in her curiously named book 'They used to call me Snow White but I drifted' (wish I had come up with that!) advises women to demonstrate their wit as evidence of their strength, rather than resorting to self-defeating humour which highlights their vulnerability.

In my opinion, today's stressful workplace environment can benefit the most from an injection of humour and general light-heartedness and, yes, women are really good at this. It is laughter that often gets us through the indignities of femininity, from menstruation, through childbirth and on to menopause. After all that, there's not really much left to physically floor us. Bringing a bit of this earthiness into a sterile office environment can have a very positive effect.

Humour is a positive tool that brings people together in an organisation helping to communicate, diffuse tension, reduce stress and promote organisational culture. Blue chip companies increasingly bring in comedians, actors and improvisers to train their staff or launch products. Yet, much of this has been male led and women's efforts have been discouraged, discredited or ignored.

This is greatly at odds with women's success as comedy professionals - take heart from ex ad land executive turned comedienne Phyllis Diller and funny media mogul Lucille Ball who both successfully made comedy their business in the 1950s and 1960s way before today's supposedly enlightened commercial world. Such women set the bar high and it is up to us to continue their legacy.

SOURCES & BACKGROUND

To download a copy of the full report Women, Humour & Power in the Workplace visit the University of East London website HERE.

To download a podcast of the Funny Women panel event from last year's International Women's Day celebrations click HERE. We addressed questions such as "How do women in different parts of the world with contrasting cultures use humour?" and "How can humour be used in the battle for women's rights?"

For a round up of how Funny Women is celebrating International Women's Day this year at I Am Visible, Women in Theatre Festival, and WOW, the Women of the World Festival visit HERE.

Dr Sharon Cahill has a PhD in Psychology from Glasgow Caledonian University. She is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of East London teaching undergraduate, masters and Professional Doctorate students how to do "real world" research. Her expertise is within the qualitative arena of research and she looks to work in an inclusive and transformative way with stakeholders and participants. Her areas of interest include women and emotions; women and work; alternative methods of research and "the body".

Rachel Densham is a lawyer and was formerly an investment banker. She is currently a Non-Executive Director of Amsphere Limited and is studying for a Masters in Psychology at UEL. Rachel joined Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton as a lawyer in 2008, having previously been a banker at N M Rothschild, where she specialised in public and private mergers and acquisitions for corporate and private equity clients since 2003. Prior to this, she was a corporate associate at Linklaters in London and New York. Rachel graduated with First Class Honours in Politics and Modern History from the University of Manchester in 1995.

Lynne Parker is the founder and executive producer of Funny Women , the UK's leading community for female comedy, helping women to perform, write and do business with humour. For more about Funny Women in Business click HERE.

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