Over Jayna Fey's 15 years in the workforce, she's been called too assertive, too comfortable, too "frowny," too familiar. Accurate or not, she used to make self-deprecating jokes about these traits.
Not anymore. The 30-year-old consultant says she's done making cracks about who she is: a pixie-cut-rocking, septum-ring-wearing leader with a brash sense of humor.
But that doesn't mean Fey — who's also managed restaurants and dabbled in stand-up comedy — is done being funny at work. There are too many benefits.
"I don't want to have any job or be in any environment long term," she said, "where we can't make each other laugh."
A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology that showed being funny at work can hurt women and help men sparked a conversation about how women professionals fare when dropping jokes in the office. In Philadelphia, women said perceptions of their wisecracks vary from workplace to workplace, from conversation to conversation.
What's consistent is that good things can happen for women who use humor at work, like sprinkling a presentation with puns to make others comfortable or easing tension with a sarcastic one-liner.
Jonathan Evans, the study author and a doctoral student in management at the University of Arizona, said that while the results suggest women can't benefit from using humor in the same way their male colleagues do, the goal wasn't to tell women to tone it down. Instead, people should use the report to recognize the prejudice.
"When we evaluate others, let's be aware there tends to be this negative bias," he said, "and let's pay more attention to that so we can reduce it."
Researchers had two actors, a man and a woman, deliver presentations as if they were managers of a retail store. Both presented two reports, one funny and one not. The researchers avoided humor that could be risky for women — no sardonic jabs, no making fun. They opted for conversational wit that was more light and self-critical.
More than 300 participants watched their presentations, rating whether they found the boss "functional" or "disruptive." When the male actor was funny, he was rated as more functional. When the female actor was funny, she was rated as more disruptive.
Brittnie Knight, a program associate at the Knight Foundation who's hosted a podcast called "Black Girls Laughing," uses humor to broach tough conversations — like using sarcasm to call out everything from casual racism to institutional biases. That approach gets the conversation rolling, she said, but "hasn't worked with seeing action followed up with that."
She's been thinking about her sense of humor recently, talking about it in therapy.
"I feel like I use it as a shield for other people," she said. "And it really sucks when I think about that that's what I feel like I have to do."
Researchers say humor improves work relationships, but funny comments can be ambiguous and humor styles vary, especially in cross-cultural conversations. Also, how people hear humor is influenced by stereotypes.