Outcomes of Leader Humor Depend on Gender

Topic(s): fairness, gender, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, 2019
Article: Gender and the Evaluation of Humor at Work
Authors: J.B. Evans, J.E. Slaughter, A.P.J. Ellis, J.M. Rivin
Reviewed by: Marissa Post

Humor has many benefits, including reduced stress, enhanced social interactions, and improved mood and motivation. In the workplace, research shows that humor may lead to increased performance, creativity, and job satisfaction, as well as increased status, respect, and self-esteem for humorous people. However, less is known about how individual differences may influence the impact of workplace humor. Researchers (Evans, Slaughter, Ellis, & Rivin, 2019) contribute to the conversation by investigating the role of gender.


The researchers found that the relationship between humor and positive workplace outcomes depends on gender. In their experimental lab study, participants viewed one of four videos: a humorous male manager, a humorous female manager, a non-humorous male manager, or a non-humorous female manager. Participants were subsequently asked to evaluate the status, performance, and leadership capability of the manager. Overall, humor had positive effects for male managers on all three of these variables, whereas negative effects occurred for female managers. In other words, males were rewarded by humor, as evidenced by higher status, performance, and leadership ratings than their non-humorous male counterparts. By contrast, females were penalized for use of humor, as evidenced by lower ratings than their non-humorous female counterparts.


Why did participants view humorous females in a negative light and humorous males in a positive light, even though all managers were following the same script? The answer seems to lie within the way we implicitly use gender stereotypes to make first impressions of the people we interact with. The researchers lean on parallel-constraint-satisfaction theory (PCST) to help explain this relationship. PCST states that people rely on stereotypes to interpret ambiguous behavior, such as humor. Therefore, in this study, when participants viewed videos of humorous male and female managers, shared gender stereotypes were automatically activated as they interpreted the manager’s behavior.

The researchers included measures to test this framework. They found that participants rated the female manager’s humor as more disruptive and less functional than the male manager’s humor. The female’s humor was viewed as a distraction from the relevant message, whereas the male’s humor was perceived as supportive of the relevant message.

Altogether, the results suggest that gender stereotypes are a barrier to women using humor as a tool for improving workplace status or improving perceptions of performance and leadership ability. However, humor appears to boost men’s status in the workplace.


The researchers highlight that fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, and researchers are still trying to figure out why. The present study points to humor as a potential source of gender-based workplace inequality. The present study was lab-based and therefore may have limited generalizability (or applicability to the real world). However, the results imply that while incorporating humor into one’s management style may be reasonable advice for men, caution may be in order for women.

Future research is needed to further our understanding of how humor plays out in the workplace. However, this study sets an important foundation for increasing our awareness of the potential for gender-based prejudice when reacting to humor at work. The researchers point out that this awareness is key to breaking down gender-based implicit biases in the workplace. When people recognize that their biases do not align with their core values, they will be more motivated to resist those biases. These concepts may also prove useful to organizations if they are incorporated within intervention programs designed to identify prejudice and reduce potential negative outcomes.


Evans, J.B., Slaughter, J.E., Ellis, A.P.J., & Rivin, J.M. (2019, February 7). Gender and the Evaluation of Humor at Work. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000395