On Women, Leadership, Comedy and Bias

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This year’s UNLEASH in London will be opened for the first time by a female master of ceremonies, Deborah Frances-White. This is not only an exciting change, but it makes a great statement in a sector in which women are generally underrepresented on the main stage, let alone in lead roles.  Deborah is a stand-up comedian, screenwriter, corporate speaker and coach, and she is passionate about the empowerment of women.

Should the fact that a woman is kicking off a large event such as this be significant and newsworthy? No, it shouldn’t — but it is. That’s because it’s debunking a number of stereotypes and opening up a much wider discussion. As Kristen Pressner will cover in her session on the first day of the conference, this fact reveals a number of biases which hold us back as individuals — and as organizations.

What’s in a Name?

A master of ceremonies can make or break an event. They keep the proceedings on track, set the mood and maintain the energy of the participants throughout. It’s a big deal.

But let’s check out the biases.

The first bias is around the title itself. We are traditionally locked into gender-coded titles — like “fireman” or “policeman” — which suggest that the function should be carried out by a man, with a potentially implicit value judgment attached. Changes to these job titles to make them more neutral have been harpooned as being overly politically correct, something brilliantly highlighted in the Twitter parody account @manwhohasitall. So, should we call Deborah our mistress of ceremonies? Person of ceremonies? Or, following @manwhohasitall guidelines, should we now call a man in the role a “male mistress of ceremonies”?

Women and Humour

Another stereotype finally being debunked is that women aren’t funny. This has somehow been a topic of much debate and research over the years. Yes, we still live in an age where men are considered to have some kind of genetic ability for comedy, as if boys emerge from the womb cracking witty one-liners. The late British journalist Christopher Hitchens, in his Vanity Fair essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” notoriously suggested that women didn’t need to have a sense of humour because they could lure men with their looks. Humour, he maintained, is a vital part of the “male sexual armory.”

Research from 2011 found that female bosses are “less likely to make jokes in the boardroom.” When they did, “more than 80% of their quips were met with silence. By comparison, 90% of jokes made by men were met with a positive response.”

Today, there are a host of highly successful female comedians. Rachel Parris,  Ellen Degeneres, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Dawn French, Miranda Hart, Sarah Millican, Ruby Wax, Andi Ozho and Gina Yashere — I could go on. Their audiences are both men and women, who laugh equally. Until relatively recently, women haven’t had the same opportunities as men to share their voices onstage. Their “place” was considered to be elsewhere.

But female talent can be found anywhere. Opportunities are simply less readily available, and the barriers still numerous. This affects female MCs and comedians, as well as women in STEM and in C-suite roles.

The Role of Comedy

A woman on stage, leading from the front with humour and beating stereotypes, will be a great role model for the many women in tech who feel less than optimistic about their opportunities in the sector. In the U.K., only 19% of computer science graduates are female, and those that do join the sector are leaving in droves.

Comedy is an excellent lens through which we can take a hard look at the gendered way we do things. The workplace is one great area to look at, as anyone who’s seen the TV series “The Office” knows. (And even on that show, only one of the main characters was a woman.)

Deborah’s TEDx talk, “Charisma vs. Stage Fright,” is one of my favorites. In it, she talks about the importance of “changing the room” and the impact a comedian makes on an audience. I’m looking forward to being in her room — and being part of the change.

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