Should Women Use Humour in the Boardroom?

21/05/2012 12:08 | Updated 21 July 2012

If a woman employs the direct, masculine approach to any sort of confrontation in business, in or out of the boardroom, she is more often or not described as 'aggressive' or 'bossy'. Men are more comfortable with a woman flirting her way out of a situation than confronting them.

I've just been quoted in an article by Daniel Boffey in the Observer newspaper yesterday entitled 'Why women's jokes fall flat in the boardroom' which reviews the findings of a study by Dr Judith Baxter, a linguistics expert, about women's behaviour in the boardroom. The study raises questions about how women use humour in the workplace, specifically the boardroom, the ultimate 'boys club' where even some of the women wear trousers.

Having spent the last 10 years listening to and watching nearly 2,000 female comedy acts, and 35 years working in business and the media, I can confirm that women's humour is not always as self-deprecating at Dr Baxter's study would have us believe. I don't profess to be an 'expert' and can only take as I find, but women's humour is evolving.

Sharp sassy clever female comedy is slowly making its way into public consciousness, as witnessed by the success of a brand new generation of comics and commentators. Lauren Laverne, Claudia Winkleman, Andi Osho, Shappi Khorsandi, and Katherine Ryan, are just a few emerging female pundits who are as liberal and clever with the one-liners as their male contemporaries.

Culture is direct reflection of society and it's not as permissible for women to be "funny" in business as it is for men. In the media we still see fewer women prominently on panel shows, and older women are often passed over for younger, prettier presenters. It's no wonder that men feel discombobulated when a confident, sharp talking alpha female enters their domain. It's our duty to help them get used to it.

It's all because of underlying sexual politics. Men use humour to woo as it complements or supplements physical appearance - they are not comfortable when a woman plays them at the same game. Submissive female behaviour is the norm in most societies - women are expected to laugh at men's jokes.

Plus women are still frightened of using humour in business. When asked what I do for a living, the most common response from a woman is 'I could never do stand-up/be funny' or 'I can't tell jokes' whereas men have a built in 'funny button' that gives them permission to use humour, however inappropriate. Our on-board editor tells us women to keep quiet! We may think it but don't say it.

What isn't discussed in the study is actually whether the humour, male or female, is relevant to the boardroom environment. A funny comment or well-timed joke can pack a punch, that' a given. That's why politicians hire advisors to make them appear witty and clever. But the rule about any kind of comedy, in business or entertainment, is to know your audience and to employ good timing. Without knowing who you are talking to, any attempt at humour runs the risk of falling flat, and you do have to choose your moment, carefully.

We women have to employ a stealth approach to using humour in the boardroom, on public platforms and to build our relationships with friends and families. When we group together in tribes, professional networks, social or family groups, we are funny - gobsmackingly, hilariously funny, funny, funny.

Some of the rudest most graphically sexual anecdotes I have ever heard have come from the mouths of women! We give each other permission to exchange and share material that we'd be uncomfortable sharing with men. Indeed in some societies, we'd be imprisoned for such impure thoughts.

Once you understand the barriers put up by sexual politics, you can see why women hold back on the humour in the boardroom. You would be very surprised about what goes around our female heads while you are busy cracking out the tired one-liners. It's time for men to understand that their audiences are changing and the boardroom is not going to be an exclusive boy's club for much longer.


Please read all about how I challenged 10 prominent women from business, academia, sport and media to perform comedy earlier this year in the 10th Anniversary Funny Women Charity Challenge. This was an exercise in changing perceptions of women on public platforms plus we jointly raised over £25k for 10 amazing charities.

As a result several men came forward to say that they want to take part in an event too - read about how we are going to challenge the men in our own inimitable female environment later this year when Funny Women Challenge the Men.