Success can be measured in many ways. My personal measure of somebody who is successful in life, work and all things, is a joyful person, communicating their passion with a smile and, even better, a good throaty chuckle. Not being able to laugh is like cutting off a limb. So why are women so risk averse when it comes to comedy?

I set up my business, Funny Women, 15 years ago as a knee jerk reaction to a misogynistic comedy promoter I had been working with as a publicist. When I questioned the lack of women in his comedy shows, I was told that it was because they were (in his opinion) not funny. His point was made at a time when there were far fewer women working regularly on the circuit than there are now and some of those women liked it that way as it gave them a competitive advantage. Glass ceilings exist in all walks of life. Hence Funny Women was born to help women to write, perform and do business with humour.

Fast forward to 2017 and our brave new world of Brexit and Trump. Never has a sense of humour been so important and it is women with their energy and passion who are driving the human rights agenda and taking to the streets to protest and change the face of politics. We have the Women’s Equality Party, Women Against Trump and thousands of women’s networks, groups and associations activating and agitating across public and media platforms.

We also have the amazing advantage of seeing more women speaking up and out about current affairs on stages and small screens all over western society. I have been running the Funny Women Awards since 2003 and I am so proud to see so many talented performers who have come through the competition challenging the status quo on everything from mental health treatment to inappropriately gendered pens.

Katherine Ryan who won the Awards in 2008 pulls no punches with her edgy femininity, and there is hardly a day goes by when she is not on our televisions these days as a host or a guest. Sara Pascoe, Bridget Christie and Susan Calman have all published autobiographical books on the backs of their stand up careers, and they along with Zoe Lyons, Kerry Godliman and newer acts like Jayde Adams and Desiree Burch have joined the ranks of the panel show elite.

The success of these women, and that of hundreds more we have seen on our Funny Women stages, is helping to change perceptions of how women should act and speak. Culture always reflects the structure of society and now, as women become more prominent in the arts, media, politics, academia and sport, we are becoming as confident about using humour as our male contemporaries. The men are learning to get used to it and this is where some of our latest projects on workplace diversity come in.

Yet women are still not fully on board with the concept of using a bit of humorous rhetoric to go the extra mile in business.

“Recent research has suggested that female bosses are less likely to make jokes in the boardroom. When they did, more than 80% of their quips were met with silence. By comparison, 90% of jokes made by men were met with a positive response.” (Baxter, 2011)

Joke telling and humour has long been the traditional domain of men in business. Using humour is often seen as a major part of a man’s “sexual armoury”, for example, an ugly man has as good a chance of getting a woman into bed as long as he makes her laugh. It is this instinct that gives men licence to use humour confidently and liberally in business to make them seem more charismatic. Male bonding too is largely constructed around “banter” and it is often easier for men to have a blokey joke with their colleagues than it is to reveal their true selves.

Meanwhile women are still battling old prejudices in the workplace and unbelievably some of these are routed in our appearance. Despite the relative business emancipation that women enjoy, it is still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will. A recent petition has led to a parliamentary debate about dress code to change the laws so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish.

Despite the Thatcherite era spawning the term “men in skirts” and the high heels debacle other such derogatory delights are mercifully behind us. As my particular world of comedy proves, we are far from being substitute men – we are women with our own clear sensibilities and, most of all, a brilliant sense of humour.

Women, Humour and Power

To see how far we have come, in 2014 Funny Women commissioned a media review in partnership with the University of East London’s Centre of Excellence for Women Entrepreneurship and published a report ‘Women, Humour and Power…in the Workplace’. Existing research and media coverage was mined for anecdotal evidence gathered from 50 academic papers and over 3,000 media articles spanning 40 years.

The review examined how we regard humour generally, observing that “if used positively and judiciously, humour can help to sustain healthy social systems in the workplace by improving communication, reducing stress, enhancing leadership and promoting organisational culture.”

We also looked at the differences in how men and women use humour: “humour is an intrinsically powerful act and joke-telling is an exceptionally aggressive form of humour which may go some way to explain why men tell more jokes than women in conversation.” (Baxter 2011)

The power of humour should not be underestimated, whether used to diffuse a potential conflict, to build relationships or to get ahead at work. The male dominated tide is turning: I have seen a growing willingness for women to experiment with humour in their business and personal lives, just as they are on the comedy circuit.

Now that more and more funny women are appearing on panel shows alongside their male contemporaries it is a short hop to the boardroom table where the addition of a woman – or two, or more – can make the workplace a more diverse and happier place. We may still have to go the extra mile and generate a few laughs along the way to achieve this so here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Don’t laugh at the office clown’s jokes. They usually don’t deserve it.
  • Do share a laugh with female colleagues about how rubbish the male office clown’s jokes are – preferably in the ladies loo where he can’t hear you.
  • Do an unofficial comedy poll amongst your colleagues. Discovering if their TV tastes are more Miranda than Modern Family will help you to get the measure of their sense of humour.
  • Women are often accused of shying away from conflict but a bit of humour can be a brilliant way to stop an argument in its tracks and to make your point.

Lynn Parker

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