June 8, 2012, by Jonathan

Being funny is no laughing matter

Last week, Telegraph columnist Tom Chivers weighed in on an ongoing debate about whether men are more funny than women. He calls for an end to it: the nature vs. nurture debate is complex, and we shouldn’t expect any clear view on whether respective funniness is the result of genes or socialisation (the philosopher J.S Mill would agree – he argued that we cannot know ‘the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another’). Because of this complexity, Chivers claims it is a mistake to hang arguments for equal treatment on claims about men and women being the same; rather, we should treat individuals as individuals, and try to ensure that individuals who are talented at something and want to pursue it are able to.


So, he claims, it doesn’t matter whether women’s jokes tend to get fewer laughs than men’s; it doesn’t matter whether fewer women want to pursue careers in comedy. What matters, he claims, is whether women who want to be stand-up comedians (or mechanics, or lawyers, or…) and who are good at it can succeed.

Is Chivers right to reject the focus on social identity, and look just at individual preferences? No.

What we do and what we want to do is shaped by gender (and race, and class, and …) norms and stereotypes. The idea that gender is a social construct which moulds men’s and women’s preferences was forcefully argued by Simone De Beauviour, in The Second Sex, over half a century ago. Recent research on the phenomena called ‘stereotype threat’ suggests that anyone who cares about individuals being able to pursue what they want to and are good at should care about social identities and attendant stereotypes.

Stereotype threat is a phenomena that affects those individuals stigmatised by a stereotype (studies have been done in the US on black students stereotyped as non-intellectual; white students stereotyped as non-athletic; female students stereotyped as not suited to mathematics).

The effect kicks in when individuals engage in a stereotype-relevant task (e.g. IQ test, athletics trial, or maths test) and when their identity as a member of the stigmatised group is made salient (and note, there’s nothing like being the only woman or only BME individual in the room to make that identity salient). The effect repeatedly found is that members of the negatively stereotyped group tend to perform less well on that task than peers. The idea is that, below the level of conscious awareness, cognitive energy is spent on awareness of and worry about the stereotype, rather than the task in hand. (When the stereotyped identity is not made salient, there is no systematic difference in performance levels).

To care only about what individuals want and whether they can get it, then, is to ignore the way that social identities can shape aspirations and even affect performance.

If we care about formal equality of opportunity, we should care very much about social identities and stereotypes: as Professor of philosophy Jennifer Saul has argued, stereotyped individuals are not being evaluated under the same conditions as others. They have to contend with stereotype threat whilst their non-stigmatised peers do not.

So suppose, with Chivers, all we want is for someone who is good at something, and who wants to pursue it, is able to. We should then care about gender representation and gender stereotypes; and in this context, about the claim that women are unfunny, because this stereotype might actually affect the performance of funny women. (The idea generalises to other professions, and other stereotypes.) To ignore the role of social identity here might be to overlook factors that unjustly undermine performance.


Jules Holroyd

Posted in EthicsPolitical PhilosophyUncategorized