The Voice of Authority

On Behalf of | February 3, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

The summer after my senior year of high school, I volunteered for my local NPR station—my assignment was to do a piece on the water quality of Lake Erie (it’s absolutely fine… maybe stick to the pool). I traveled around town collecting sound, conducting interviews; I was thrilled to use the editing equipment to put a story together. It was a short segment that took me entirely too long to compile, and when I handed the tape (yes, it’s been some years) to the reporter I was working under, I didn’t know if he would actually use it. But he did.

“Great story,” he told me. “We’re going to run it, but I’ll voice it for the air.” Sure, I thought, makes sense. I figured I must not have a public radio voice, I had a seventeen-year-old girl voice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about (relatively) young female voices recently, and why it was a safe assumption that the voice of a seventeen-year-old girl was not what people wanted to hear reporting the news—even if that news was only about beach conditions. Just last week, This American Life revealed that the show has been getting emails from listeners complaining about the voices of women on the program. One such email began, “The voice of Chana Joffe-Walt is just too much to bear, and I turn off any episode she is on.” Another listener said, “Listen I know there is pressure to hire females, in particular, young females just out of college, and besides they are likely to work for less money, but do you have to choose the most irritating voices in the English-speaking world?” Still, others described the sound as “excruciating,” “annoyingly adolescent,” and said that the speaker’s voice “detracts from the credibility of the journalist.” Keep in mind, these women are long past seventeen. These are the voices of really smart, grown women.

The issue the listeners pointed to is vocal fry. Vocal fry is the gravelly texture you get when you drop your voice to its lowest register. Think Britney Spears singing “Oh baby, baby.” While often used as a tool in singing, the media has described vocal fry in speech as a “debilitating disorder afflicting North American women.”

The movie In a World, Lake Bell’s well done, funny and generally feminist comedy about the voice-over industry, provides a colorful example of this kind of critique of women’s voices:

Bell’s character, a voice-over artist turned vocal coach, bemoans what she calls, “sexy baby voice” saying, “women should sound like women.” And so she makes it her business to help women be heard.

But vocal coaching for professional women isn’t just the stuff of comedy. It’s a reality highlighted in the story of Monica Hanna, a five-foot-tall litigator in New York. Early in Hanna’s career, a partner at her firm commented on Hanna’s high-pitched voice during a meeting, neglecting to comment on the content of what she said. Later, Hanna’s voice was brought up as an issue in her performance evaluation. Fearing that her voice would affect her career and be a distraction in the courtroom, Hanna decided to work with a speech pathologist, who specializes in working with transgender men and women to change the gendered patterns and tone of their speech. Studies show that both men and women with lower voices are perceived as more competent, stronger and more trustworthy. The frustrating thing is that a lower voice in men is seen as more authoritative and more attractive. A lower voice in women is seen as less attractive: you can’t win unless you have one voice for the boardroom and one for the bedroom.

The truth is, women’s voices are higher because women’s vocal chords are thinner and shorter. There’s not much we can do about that. But other gendered speech patterns might be a learned response to constant interruption. As Sheryl Sandberg reminded us recently, Speaking While Female in professional settings in an exercise in holding on to your audience. Ending “every sentence with a question,” as Bell criticizes, is an effort to keep the listener engaged. A rise in pitch at the end of a sentence serves as a signal that the person is not finished speaking. Stop talking over us and we might not have to fight so hard to be heard.

Similarly, vocal fry, the sound This American Life listeners found so abhorrent, could certainly be a result of women trying to sound more authoritative, less babyish, by dropping their voice to its lowest register. But the really interesting thing, at least when it comes to vocal fry, is that men do it too. It’s just that women are disproportionately punished for it.

As a fellow five-foot-tall litigator, I took note of Hanna’s story and the lessons it seemed to convey. What does it mean if, for Hanna’s voice to be less of a distraction to a judge or a juror, she needed to sound less like a woman—or at least less like herself? What’s a young professional woman to do?

Well, you can keep consciously dropping the pitch of your voice when you answer the phone (I know you do it, we all do) though I don’t know how far that gets you. You can pay for a coach, like Monica Hanna (or Margret Thatcher for that matter). Or you can focus on working your way up to a position of power: a study in last month’s Psychological Science found that the vocal changes that convey authority, those changes Hanna deliberately worked on, also seem to come about automatically when a speaker is given authority.

In the meantime, we support each other and soldier on. As NPR’s, Chana Joffe-Walt explained, “I’m just trying to speak.” I, for one, enjoy listening.