Are Women Funny?

lucille ballAre women funny?  Are they as funny as men?  A recent poll provides some good news and some bad news on perceptions of female humor.  First the good news:  the majority of us (56%) think that women and men are equally funny.  Now for the bad news:  the remaining 44% were six times more likely to think men are funnier than women.   There are certainly plenty of funny women around (think Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig, just to name a few), so why do so many think women aren’t funny?

One explanation is that women have been socialized to be unfunny (funniness is apparently unladylike).  Therefore, we stereotype women as humorless.  At least this explanation leaves open the possibility that women have the same potential as men to be funny.

Another explanation is that men have evolved to be funnier than women.  Evolutionarily speaking, men must prove their intelligence to potential mates.  (Women just have to look good, so they’ll produce good offspring – no need for intelligence or a sense of humor).   In past generations, those men that didn’t have a good sense of humor were less likely to find mates.  Therefore, unfunny genes were less likely to get passed on to future unfunny generations.  Since the unfunny men got weeded out,  the remaining men have evolved to have a better sense of humor than women.

I find it hard to believe that sense of humor has evolved, although I’ll agree that sense of humor does seem more important for men who are looking for a date than for women.  I rarely hear my male friends saying they want to date a girl because of her fabulous sense of humor, but women certainly seem attracted to a man who can make them laugh.

Why not test funniness in the laboratory, and, once and for all, establish if women are, in general, funnier than men?  Researchers have tried, but the results are inconclusive.  Some studies asked participants to rate how funny something was. The thinking here is that people with a greater sense of humor will find more things funny.  That’s like judging if someone is an artist, by asking them if the Mona Lisa is a good painting.  These tests measures humor appreciation, but not ability to be funny.

In a more recent attempt at measuring funniness, researchers asked male and female subjects to write captions to accompany cartoon images from the New Yorker.  They then asked male and female raters to evaluate the captions.  Men, they report, wrote funnier captions.  Therefore, they conclude, men are funnier than women.  I still don’t buy it.  Cartoon captions are women’s strong suit.  Women have a more interpersonal style of humor.  Unfortunately, nobody has tested for that yet.

Given that this question of which sex is funnier remains unanswered, it’s up to women to go out and convince the remaining 44% of the population that we’re funny.  Get out there today and make someone laugh.

Gender-neutral Oscars – It’s Time


It’s awards season again, and it’s a pet peeve of mine that the Academy insists on awarding separate Oscars to male and female actors.  Not many share my opinion. When I published my plea for gender-neutral Oscar Awards in The New York Times a few years ago, the response was overwhelmingly negative.  Arguments as to why this was a bad idea flooded my inbox.  From Fox News to NPR, everyone I spoke with seemed to think it was a ridiculous suggestion. One blogger even crowned me “Idiot of the Week,” for proposing such a ludicrous idea.

Objections to my plea for gender-neutral Oscars primarily fell into three categories.  The first centered around the fact that men and women are cast into different roles.  Cate Blanchett wouldn’t play Jordan Belfort from the Wolf of Wall Street and Jasmine from Blue Jasmine wouldn’t be the same if Leonardo DiCaprio had the role.  Clearly, my detractors said, different roles warrant different awards.   But I don’t believe the different role argument justifies separate awards.  Although men and women typically do play different roles, the same can be said for comedians and dramatic actors – Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t play Ron Burgundy from the Anchorman films and Will Ferrell wouldn’t be cast as Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort.  Yet separate awards don’t exist for comedians and dramatic actors.  These actors are judged side by side on how well they portrayed their particular role, just as male and female actors should be.

“Women wouldn’t win” was another popular rationale for retaining a female-only category.  Since women generally have fewer meatier roles in films, my critics said, female actors would be less likely to go home with a gold statuette.  Again, this claim just doesn’t hold water.   Female directors don’t win as frequently as men, but there’s no separate category for directresses.  Let’s see if women would win, and if there are inequities in Hollywood, we should highlight these injustices rather than hiding them in separate awards.

Finally, there were those who didn’t like the idea of an Oscar show with fewer awards.  (I guess these people just don’t have to get up in the morning).  But if the Academy wanted to preserve the number of awards, there are several reasonable alternatives.  Awarding separate Oscars for comedic and dramatic roles, for example, would preserve the number of awards without gender bias.

To be fair, not everyone hates the gender-neutral idea.  After reading my piece, Howard Stern commented on his radio program that it would be weird if the Academy offered an Oscar just for Jews, so why have a separate award just for women?  Recently, MSNBC host Krystal Ball asserted it’s sexist to have separate awards for men and women.  Stern and Ball, that’s a start.

One last reaction to my call for gender-neutral Oscars was “What difference does it make?”   Making this change would not only effect male and female actors, but would positively impact the perceptions of women in all professions.  From Beyoncé to Obama, everyone is discussing how to  help women’s status in the workplace.  Suggestions range from teaching women to lean in to offering even more childcare.  Yet we allow one of the most-watched television shows of the year to perpetuate stereotypes that men and women are so different that they can’t compete for the same acting awards.  If we want things to change for women, we have to make sure we practice gender equity everywhere, particularly in an awards program that is such an integral part of American culture.

What’s in a Name?

mom childI’m a Lucy Stoner.  Feminist, Lucy Stone, was the first U.S. woman to keep her own name after marriage, and other women who follow her example are referred to as Lucy Stoners. Current research indicates that only about 10% of married women in the United States are Lucy Stoners.

Many don’t realize the taking-your-husband’s-name tradition is primarily practiced only in English-speaking countries (with a few exceptions).  In many countries  –  China, Iran, Italy and Korea to name a few – women retain their birth name throughout their lives.   For English-speakers, our surname change tradition dates back to European Feudal times, when both husband and wife adopted the more powerful surname.  If the wife’s family owned more land, both husband and wife would use her surname after marriage.  However, starting in the Middle Ages, women were cut off from inheriting land – making the husband naturally more powerful.   Thus began the tradition of taking of the husband’s name.

Regardless of marital naming traditions, in almost all cultures, children take the father’s surname.  That’s the hardest part about being a Lucy Stoner –  having a different last name than my son.   When signing documents for my son’s school or his participation in sports, I always write ‘mother’ in parentheses, so they know who I am.  At the airport, when we show our tickets and identification, I feel like TSA agents are sizing me up as a kidnapper.  And when my son becomes President of the United States or is elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, people will think I’m crazy when I claim to be his mom.

High divorce rates have increased the number of single parent households.  And, who is it that raises these kids?  About 82% of single-parent families are run by moms.  On their own, many of these moms are raising their kids who are using dad’s last name.  And what message does it send to our kids when all children take their dad’s name?  That dad’s name is somehow more important?

I think it’s time we start changing this naming “tradition.”  I’m not suggesting all kids get the mom’s name – that wouldn’t be fair either.  And hyphenated names are just too long and clumsy.   But  I bet we could find some sort of compromise (children born on odd days get mom’s surname and even days get dad’s, or first borns get dad’s name, and second children get mom’s?).

Taking mom’s last name is not as unusual as you might think.  Four percent of women are already passing their surnames to their children, and listed below are a few celebrities who chose to use their mom’s last name.  As for my son, I think it’s too late for a surname change – but it’s not too late to make him understand why this tradition is a bit unfair.

    • Barry Manilow
    • Diane Keaton
    • Garry Kasparov
    • Katy Perry
    • Eddie Vedder
    • Eric Clapton
    • Lauren Bacall
    • Pablo Picasso

Where are All the Wiki-Women?

pink pencilpink_wikipedia

Less than 15% of Wikipedia editors are women.  How can that be?  No one hires Wikipedia editors, so no one can claim gender bias or favoritism.  I’ve edited Wikipedia myself, and there’s no background check.  No need to prove you’re a credible source.   Anyone with internet access is free to edit almost every Wikipedia entry.  My ten-year-old could edit Wikipedia if he wanted.

So why are so few women contributing?  A recent piece by Kat Stoeffel in  New York Magazine suggested that socialization is to blame.  Women, she says, aren’t raised to consider themselves authorities on anything.   They don’t contribute, because they don’t think they’re qualified.  I don’t buy it.  Women outnumber men in graduate school in this country.   Women are earning more Ph.D.’s than men.  Women are experts , and they know it.

A second proposed explanation for the paucity of female contribution was free time. Greater responsibility for childcare leaves women with less free time than men.  Less free time means less time to edit Wikipedia.  I don’t buy this argument either.  Regardless as to which gender has more free time, women are more likely than men to volunteer, so why not volunteer to edit Wikipedia?   Lack of free time doesn’t seem like it holds up as an explanation –  women are just choosing to put their volunteer efforts into causes other than creating a giant encyclopedia.

Maybe it’s the internet – too scary and technical for women?  Sorry, but about half of all internet bloggers are women and women tend to dominate social networking sites.  Women seem to be able to navigate the internet just fine.

Still others have suggested Wikipedia’s argumentative culture isn’t attractive to women.  A survey of female contributors found a third had been assaulted, attacked, or treated poorly by colleagues on projects.  However, there’s no indication that this abuse is related to gender, and there’s no information on the percentage of men who have been treated poorly on Wikipedia.  I suspect the figure is similar for men.

In reality, we don’t know what’s keeping women from Wikipedia.  My guess is that women prefer to spend their free time doing something more social than editing an on-line encyclopedia.  Whatever the cause, we need women to get over it.  Otherwise, this massive encyclopedia will become completely skewed in its coverage.  According to Stoeffel, a single character from Grand Theft Auto currently has more Wikipedia citations than Sex and the City, and pages covering women tend to be less developed than those covering men.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is becoming the go-to source for many people.  It’s important that women, and topics important to women, are recognized in this encyclopedia.  This time, there’s no one to blame but ourselves, women.  Let’s get out there and contribute.

The Sex Partition

Check out my piece in The Guardian:  There’s a de facto ‘sex partition’ in the workplace

gender symbols

From Beyoncé Knowles to President Obama, it seems everyone is bemoaning the gender pay gap. Over and over, we hear how greater responsibility for childcare and failure to ‘lean in‘ can cause women to fall behind their male counterparts at work. However, my research suggests there’s a new culprit behind the pay gap – this time, organizations may be to blame.  I call the problem the “sex partition”, and here’s an example of how it plays out at work….. To continue reading, click here.

Fighting Back: Sexist Questions from the Media

eugenie bouchard

Tennis star Eugenie Bouchard was the first Canadian woman to make it to the semi-finals of the Australian Open in over thirty years.  In the courtside interview after her historic win, interviewer Samantha Smith didn’t focus on her predictions or strategy for the Open.  No, she asked Bouchard about her dream date. “You’re getting a lot of fans here.  A lot of them are male, and they want to know: If you could date anyone in the world of sport or movies -– I’m sorry, they asked me to say this -– who would you date?”

We all know the media treats women differently than men – athletes, politicians, actors, comedians and executives are all victims. By focusing on women’s appearance or relationships instead of their accomplishments, the women’s contributions are minimized.  Think Sarah Palin. But there’s good news. Something is changing.  The women are beginning to fight back.

  • At the SAG awards, an E! cameraman tried to capture actress Cate Blanchett’s gown.   As he slowly began scanning her body from feet upwards, Cate bent down so her face appeared in the camera and asked , “Do you do that to the guys?”


  • When Top Chef Gail Simmons was asked by a Denver Post reporter how she balances “eating for a living and looking good on TV,”  Simmons replied, “Tom Colicchio never gets that question.”


  • When Amy Poehler and Tina Fey were asked about being women in comedy, Fey retorted, “the only disadvantage women have is to have to keep fucking answering the question of, ‘Is it hard and are women funny?’  The men don’t have to answer that question. That’s the only impairment.”

Thanks Cate, Gail and Tina.  Calling the media out on their inappropriateness is the first step in eradicating it.

And what did Eugenie Bouchard reply in response to the ridiculous question about her dream date?  Clearly embarrassed, and covering her face with her hand, she replied – Justin Bieber.  Bouchard is only 19 years old, and doesn’t yet know that she need not  answer such questions.  She doesn’t know that talking about who she’d like to date undermines her status as a professional athlete.  She doesn’t know that she can just tell the reporter that she’d prefer to talk about tennis.  Hopefully next time.

Is Sexism Over?

sexism in trash

The majority of women in a new Pew poll report their workplaces are free of gender bias.  Surprised?  According to the survey, most female employees report they are paid equally to men and have the same opportunities for advancement.

Interesting results given women make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men and still hold only a small percentage of C-suite and board positions in major companies.   Clearly sexism still pervades many workplaces, but is it somehow going unnoticed by women?

Sexism can be subtle, and perhaps it flies under the radar for many women.  After all, organizations don’t circulate corporate memos demanding women receive less pay than their male counterparts.  When a top executive position opens, there is no disclaimer that only men should apply.  Indeed, even organizations are often naive as to how sexism permeates their organization.   But sexism’s subtlety isn’t the only explanation for these surprising survey responses.

Sheryl Sandberg (and other recent authors) who have blamed women for their own lack of advancement at work have also, inadvertently, led women to deny sexism.  In the current climate, acknowledging women’s issues advancing in the workplace has become synonymous with acknowledging women’s weaknesses.  Women aren’t doing well at work?  They must not be leaning in, they’re consumed with perfection, or spending too much time with their kids.  In order to keep their own self-esteem intact, it’s natural that women would start denying that anything is amiss at the office.  No sexism here – we’re doing just fine, thank you.

In reality, women aren’t to blame for their own lack of progress at work.  Lack of leaning in, perfection and issues of family aren’t the only obstacles to women’s advancement.  Sexism still impacts many women and denying its existence only lets it fester.

Clearly, some sexism-free workplaces exist, and if you work in one, congratulations.  But if you detect sexism, don’t pretend it’s not there.  Open and honest discussion is the first step to eradicating sexism.  And, if you do complain of sexism, and someone advises you to lean in – tell them that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Sexual Harassment in Elementary School? Really?


Seventeen-year-old high school senior, Sam McNair’s hopes for attending college next year came crashing down this week.  Bad grades?   Drugs?  Weapons?  No, McNair hugged his teacher and received a one-year suspension for sexual harassment.   His alleged harassing hug was captured on surveillance video, and it looks pretty innocent to me.  Although, McNair’s teacher alleged his cheek and lips touched her neck, he denies any such contact.  McNair’s mom says their family always hugs, and McNair insists he was just trying to brighten the teacher’s day.

Sexual harassment allegations against students are not uncommon.  Last week, Hunter Yelton, a 6-year-old boy was suspended by a Colorado school for sexual harassment – he kissed a female classmate on the cheek.  The boy’s mother said the two children liked each other, and that the kiss was not unwelcome.  Should children be charged with sexual harassment?

Courts have found that, just as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects the workplace from sexual harassers, sexual harassment at school is prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  Although Title IX is typically invoked in connection with equality in men’s and women’s school sports activities, more recently it has been used to ensure that a school provides an environment that is free from sexual harassment.

As a result, small children are now facing accusations of sexual harassment.  Another 6- year old boy was found in violation of the school’s sexual harassment policy when two of his fingers reached under a female classmate’s waistband to touch the skin of her back.  The principal suspended the boy from school for three days for violating the school’s sexual harassment policy. In a newspaper interviews the boy’s mom said he is too young to understand what the word ‘sexual’ means.  When a nine-year-old in North Carolina was suspended for calling his teacher “cute,” the principal labeled this behavior sexual harassment.

I get that McNair’s teacher doesn’t want to be touched by her students, and she probably wants McNair to learn boundaries.  I’m certainly not suggesting she should tolerate behavior that she finds offensive.  So let’s teach him some boundaries.  But labeling McNair’s behavior sexual harassment and suspending him for a year just doesn’t make sense.

For sexual harassment in the workplace, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) definition includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”  But on its website, the EEOC clarifies that “the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious. Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”

But school is not like the workplace, and applying a term intended for the workplace to label behavior in elementary or high school is just plain misleading. High schools often encourage dating between students, while workplaces typically frown upon dating a colleague.  At school-sanctioned dances and proms, students grasp their dates in a hug-like embrace while slow dancing.  Again, doesn’t happen so much in the working world.  Welcome behavior becomes somewhat more murky in this environment.  The definition of sexual harassment at school would have to differ significantly from that of harassment at work.

I propose we discard the “sexual harassment” label in school for something more appropriate like “unwelcome contact.”   Not only does this label fit the behavior more appropriately, but it won’t lead to confusion about what constitutes sexual harassment when the children later enter the working world.

On a brighter note, after a barrage of media attention, the Colorado school dropped the sexual harassment accusations against Hunter Yelton (the 6-year-old who kissed a classmate last week).  His behavior was much more appropriately re-labeled “misconduct.”

As for McNair’s year suspension, I hope his school also recognizes that the punishment needs to fit the crime. Good luck Sam!

Can Attractive Women Be Friends with Married Men?

Iowa Woman Is Fired Because Boss’s Spouse Thought She Was A Threat

melissa nelson

Photo of Melissa Nelson from

Can attractive women have married male friends?  It seems the answer is no.  Face facts, spouses just don’t like it when their significant others seek out the friendship of an attractive member of the opposite sex.  In the workplace, where connections are critical to career success lack of friends can put a career on the slow track.  Unfortunately, attractive women may have more difficulty establishing these important connections at work, particularly to married men.  Often spousal jealousy is to blame.

In a recent case of extreme spousal jealousy, dental assistant Melissa Nelson lost her job when her boss’s spouse decided Nelson “was a big threat” to their marriage.  Nelson had worked for her former employer, James Knight, for ten years, and Knight reported that Nelson was one of the best dental assistants he ever had.  So, why fire her?   Ultimately, it was Knight’s wife, Jeanne Knight, who had enough and ordered him to fire Nelson.  Jeanne felt that the “irresistibly attractive” Nelson was a threat to their marriage.

Nelson had done nothing wrong.  She considered Knight a friend and father figure, and denies ever flirting with him or seeking any type of romantic or sexual relationship with him.  She was fired because she was attractive, and her boss’s wife thought she was a threat.

Often women’s lack of parity with men in the workplace is blamed on women’s exclusion from the old boys network.  Yet it’s not always the old boys that are excluding them.  The wives of the old boys are often to blame for keeping women out.

So what are women to do?  The biggest blunder cross-sex friends make is trying to keep their friendship a secret.  Perhaps admirably, they attempt secrecy so that their spouse won’t get jealous.  Unfortunately that secrecy implies there is more to the relationship than a mere friendship.  Knight’s wife became particularly jealous when she found that her husband had been texting Nelson.  The texts involved updates on the kids’ activities and other innocuous matters.  Stuff you would text to a friend.  If Knight had regularly shared these texts with his wife, perhaps she would have been less suspicious of their friendship.  Instead, she discovered the texting on her own.  Then Nelson was fired.

Nelson sued for sex discrimination, and her case went all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.  After all, Nelson claimed, if she had been a man, she would still be employed.   Knight countered that Nelson was not fired because of her gender, indeed, he hired another woman to replace her.  Instead, Knight claimed that Nelson was fired because she represented a threat to his marriage.  In July 2013, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court sided with Knight, ruling that no sex discrimination had occurred.

I guess the wives of the justices told them to vote that way.

Pretty Soldiers Not Good For Army PR

female soldier

Pretty women send the wrong message.  That’s the opinion of Col. Lynette Arnhart who’s job it is to figure out how to best integrate women into combat roles.  Arnhart composed the following pearls of wisdom in an e-mail about photos included in army PR:  “In general, ugly women are perceived as competent while pretty women are perceived as having used their looks to get ahead…  There is a general tendency to select nice looking women when we select a photo to go with an article (where the article does not reference a specific person). It might behoove us to select more average looking women for our comms strategy. For example, the attached article shows a pretty woman, wearing make-up while on deployed duty. Such photos undermine the rest of the message (and may even make people ask if breaking a nail is considered hazardous duty),” Arnhart said.

In addition to the obvious inappropriateness of this message, it’s also incorrect.   In general, research indicates that attractive people of both genders are perceived as more intelligent, more likely to be hired, and typically earn more money than their less attractive counterparts.  However, attractive women do not fare as well at work as their attractive male counterparts.  Stereotypes like those perpetuated by Arnhart are partially to blame.  Given Arnhart’s lack of competence in this area, she must be beautiful – using her own logic, that is.

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