Feb. 16, 2022

Just joking – participating in sexist joking can affect status of both men and women at work

Haskayne researcher studies how work culture can drive harmful behaviours

She walks into the lunchroom just as John is letting out a zinger — yet another blonde joke. The room erupts in laughter and knee slapping. She pipes up… “Did you hear the one about…” Why would she join in on these sexist jokes?

Going Along to Get Ahead: The Asymmetric Effects of Sexist Joviality on Status Conferral, published in Organization Science, provides some insights into why people may perpetuate a culture that encourages sexist joking in the workplace.

Natalya Alonso

Natalya Alonso explored sexist joking in traditionally male-dominated occupations.

Over three studies, Dr. Natalya Alonso, PhD, assistant professor in organizational behaviour and human resources at the Haskayne School of Business and her colleague Dr. Mandy O’Neill from George Mason University explored sexist joking in traditionally male-dominated occupations, including high technology.

“We found that women were seen as socially skilled when they participated in sexist joking and teasing. It was seen as an ability to adjust themselves to the male-dominated environment,” says Alonso. “While men, on the other hand, were seen as lacking social skill because they were seen as forcing this behaviour despite the presence of women who presumably dislike it.”

Status benefits versus internal penalties

Social status can be elusive. Who has the respect of their colleagues and how does one gain their esteem? The researchers found that in masculine cultures that valorize male ideals, women can gain status by participating in, rather than disrupting, a sexist culture that is based on sexist joking and teasing.

“This is not a case of ‘just be funny’,” warns Alonso. “Attrition rates for women in many male-dominated occupations are atrocious, largely because of behaviours like these.”

The research found that men lose status by participating directly in sexist joking.

Although women may gain status by participating in sexist joking, Alonso is interested in exploring if there are any internal costs that women suffer by engaging in these behaviours that might help account for why many women ultimately choose to leave workplaces that have sexist cultures. She speculates that feeling inauthentic, putting down women as a group and creating tension with other women could have harmful effects on women’s mental state in these workplace situations.

What does it matter? It’s just a joke

Managers need to take a hard look at the culture of their organization to see if it promotes and endorses sexist joking that ultimately drives women out of the environment.

“The affective tone of sexist joking creates a veil of deniability,” says Alonso. “A warm tone makes it harder to protest. It is just a joke, and not to be taken seriously. It is hard to disrupt this culture because you look like an uppity nag.”

If your work culture involves sexist joking:

  • Do not think that because women are participating in the joking, that they are okay with it. Going along with the joke may be a way of coping rather than acceptance.
  • Do not let this behaviour persist. It is harmful to all people and the overall dynamic in the workplace.

Alonso hopes that this study can provide some reassurance to people who have experienced sexist joking in the workplace by creating an understanding of why women may join in, rather than challenge this behaviour, and perhaps this research will provide the language and context to discuss this issue with managers.