It’s just a joke, right? Empirical findings on the serious effects of sexist humor

You can still make a joke, right? Yes, but... misogynistic jokes about women can have negative consequences. What can such humor do to women and men?

Disparaging jokes devalue members of certain groups and reinforce status differences between groups. Thus, when a man in the workplace says with a wink "I'm not a sexist. Sexism is wrong - and only women are wrong", this is more than just a funny remark. Humor can make sexist remarks about women seem more appropriate; it provides a socially acceptable outlet for expressing and reinforcing prejudiced attitudes, while also allowing individuals to avoid personal accountability for their discriminatory beliefs. And such statements can have negative consequences for both women and men.

Sexist jokes contribute to a culture of prejudice and make sexist attitudes more acceptable. Such a communication climate also increases tolerance for discriminatory behavior. For example, men donated less money to women's organizations after being exposed to sexist jokes about women, but not after hearing non-humorous sexist comments or neutral jokes [1]. Even more extreme, sexist humor may make some men more accepting of rape myths (e.g., women who say "no" are just being coy and still want it) and violence against women; they may even become more prone to sexualized violence against women themselves [2]. This is especially true for men who already had sexist attitudes before hearing the sexist joke – the humorous communication is a way to express and reinforce those prejudices within a socially acceptable context. In sum, sexist humor against women is more than "just a joke": it serves as a means of maintaining and reinforcing existing power dynamics and social hierarchies, while lowering women's social status and jeopardizing their safety.

But what can sexist jokes about women trigger in women themselves? Apart from the fact that women find such jokes less funny than men [3], sexist humor can trigger stereotype threat in women. Stereotype threat is a phenomenon in which individuals feel pressure or anxiety about potentially confirming a negative stereotype about their social group. This can lead to underperformance in tasks that are related to the stereotype (e.g., women are bad at math), as individuals may be worried about reinforcing the stereotype. It has been shown that watching comedy that devalues women can cause them to perform worse on cognitive performance tests than watching comedy that does not deal with gender issues [4].

But it's just a joke, right? It can't be that tragic, can it? Of course, sexist jokes are not the only cause of discrimination and gender inequality. And yet, they do contribute to gender inequality. Although the effects found in the studies tend to be small, they are statistically significant and meaningful. The next time you have a coffee break with your colleagues, you might prefer to tell this one: "What's green and running through the forest? - A pack of cucumbers. And what's the joke? - Cucumbers are not pack animals."



[1] T. E. Ford, C. F. Boxer, J. Armstrong, and J. R. Edel, “More Than ‘Just a Joke’: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor,” Pers Soc Psychol Bull, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 159–170, Feb. 2008, doi: 10.1177/0146167207310022.

[2] M. Romero-Sánchez, H. Carretero-Dios, J. L. Megías, M. Moya, and T. E. Ford, “Sexist Humor and Rape Proclivity: The Moderating Role of Joke Teller Gender and Severity of Sexual Assault,” Violence Against Women, vol. 23, no. 8, pp. 951–972, Jul. 2017, doi: 10.1177/1077801216654017.

[3] T. J. Lawless, C. J. O’Dea, S. S. Miller, and D. A. Saucier, “Is it really just a joke? Gender differences in perceptions of sexist humor,” HUMOR, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 291–315, May 2020, doi: 10.1515/humor-2019-0033.

[4] S. Weber, M. Appel, M. C. Steffens, and V. Hirschhäuser, “Just a joke? Can sexist comedy harm women’s cognitive performance?,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, vol. 17, no. 5, pp. 608–618, Oct. 2023, doi: 10.1037/aca0000369.

Picture 1: Markus Spiske via pexels


Note: This article was already reviewed and is published in the German version of In-Mind.