Calling a couple of her team over to her desk in an open-plan office, a senior woman in a professional services firm briefs them on the next steps of a project. After the short meeting, a male colleague sitting nearby asks her to keep her voice down in future because she sounds just like his wife nagging him.
When the woman complained about the comment, she was told it was just a joke and asked if she had a sense of humour.
A nagging wife is not an attractive figure in our society. The archetype of a droning scold in the household is invariably female and widely regarded as irritating and petty.
Obviously it’s not a compliment to be described in this way in front of your peers in a professional workplace and the aim is also clear – to make women think twice about how and when they speak.
Labelling a complaint about this barbed comment as a display of a poor sense of humour is at best fobbing off the woman’s concern. At worst it condones the idea that these remarks are simply part of the argy bargy in workplaces. It reinforces poor norms and lets the culprit off the hook.
There’s nothing funny about passive-aggressive humour which can be a real problem in many workplaces – particularly in cultures such as Australia where “getting a joke” is an important part of fitting in socially.
Research into workplace dynamics and the “just joking” phenomenon by the Centre for Ethical Leadership at Melbourne University’s Ormond College in 2012, found these kinds of comments can be very damaging for women.
“Just joking” can mask a form of covert sexism that erodes women’s confidence and has an impact beyond the woman who is targeted to those who hear or observe the behaviour.
Thinly disguising sexist put-downs as humour “diminishes women by their gender, and by their sense of humour and social competence” the research concluded.
“While legislation and organisational policies exist to address the issue of sexual harassment, there is less action against low level sexual humour and slang. Because these are seen as harmless, and part of the accepted social interaction between human beings, they are more widespread and just as insidious as the more overt variety. 'Mary will make the tea' and ‘Jane has a great body' are such examples,” the research found.
A no “just joking” policy is one way of dealing with this, the research stated, and a simple intervention would require the perpetrator to apologise.
“Anyone who hears a sexist remark would be expected to point it out and the person who made the remark would be required to say, 'I am sorry that my comments were offensive'. The matter would end there. This simple intervention would do much to legitimise a woman's right to challenge and it would also ensure the location of responsibility would lie with the perpetrator and not the target. This policy will lead to awareness and, over time, cultural change.”
What the office scenario also reveals is the lingering perception that women just talk too much, and certainly more than men. It’s a pervasive and usually negative stereotype which turns out to be a myth, according to University of Oxford Rupert Murdoch Professor of language and communication Deborah Cameron.
In fact, meta-analysis, which compares a range of studies from around the world on a topic, found the idea women speak many more words a day than men is not backed by evidence, and there are far fewer differences than similarities in how the genders communicate, Cameron says.
But the myth was tenacious and: “The belief in female loquacity is generally combined with disapproval of it. The statement 'women talk more than men' tends to imply the judgment 'women talk too much'.”
“The folk-belief that women talk more than men persists because it provides a justification for an ingrained social prejudice,” Cameron writes in her book, The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?.
Telling women they sound like a nag is an unsubtle way of shutting them up at a time when they are being urged to do the exact opposite if they want to succeed.
Criticising a woman manager for briefing her team – or doing her job – relies on a lazy rehashing of myths and stereotypes that simply need to be countered to stop reinforcing the idea that women aren’t suited to leadership.
When it comes to humour, there’s a simple rule about making jokes or remarks – if they involve someone with power taking shots at those in a marginalised group (because of their race, gender or sexual orientation) then they usually aren’t very funny. Humour is about laughing with others not laughing at them.
Enough with the offensive sexism masquerading as humour and the recycling of tired clichés about women talking too much. Time to call out "just joking” and remember that women shouldn’t shut up but speak up.