It’s in Her... Voice?


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Howard Lake.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but apparently an intelligent woman with a high voice will not seem as smart.

That’s what biology Professor Rindy Anderson, of Florida Atlantic University, discovered after a number of studies on how an audience perceives female voices.

The reason women are generally higher pitched than men is because they are physically smaller and thus have smaller vocal chords. Hormones and genetics also impact the sound of a voice–the more testosterone released into the body during puberty (which is hereditary) the stronger the chords become and the lower the resulting sound.

Environmental factors like pollution and smoking can alter voices somewhat. Otherwise, until old age sets in, the voice you have after puberty is the one you’ll have your entire life.

No research ever has found the sound of one’s voice reflective of mental acuity. Nevertheless, a recent study by NPR on voting behavior showed that invariably people thought women who spoke in a lower register were more qualified for a position of authority. The perception explains why women in politics are often coached to speak lower, as in the famous case of Margaret Thatcher.

Unfortunately, Anderson also found that women who speak too low are perceived as too manly, which is considered sexually atypical and also elicits distaste.

“Women in positions of authority are in a double bind,” Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and prolific author on language and social relationships, tells BTR.

One of Tannen’s myriad major studies involved shadowing men and women at the workplace. She wrote about her findings in the paramount book and national bestseller, Talking From 9 to 5. In it, she observes that if women in positions of power talk in a high voice, they are liked, but underestimated and seen as lacking in confidence. If they talk in ways associated with the authority of the role they have, they’re respected, but seen as too aggressive and disliked.

“It is a delicate balancing act, so there is good reason that women adopt certain styles [of speech],” she concludes.

One of those styles is called “rising intonation,” or up-talk. Up-talk is when you end your sentence with a question, even though you are making a statement. For example: “that band was awesome, they totally rocked?”

The speech pattern was made popular by the infamous ‘90s “valley girls” craze. Though this type of speaking is most prevalent in females it is not exclusive to them, and whether or not they originated it is still hotly debated.

It was long assumed up-talk reflected a lack of confidence on the speakers’ part, but a famous study by Stanford linguist Penelope Eckhart postulates it is rather a gentle indicator the speaker is not closing the subject but opening it up to conversation.

Up-talk is still around, but in the past year a new vocal style has emerged in pop culture. It’s called vocal fry, as shown in the video below.

That low virbrato sound happens when speakers drop their voice into the lowest register it can go and keep it there.

There are several theories on the social reasoning behind vocal fry. Linguist Norma Mendoza-Denton studied girl gangs in Southern California and found that they use it to sound tough. But that’s a specific environment, and Tannen thinks in general vocal fry actually undercuts authority.

“It’s sort of like a disclaimer. A way of fading out, ending your statement with a whimper not a bang,” she says.

Tannen goes on to point out that humans are highly imitative–if we hear someone speaking in a certain way we naturally emulate it. To that effect, she warns we must be wary of over interpreting any individual’s speak as deliberate. Vocal fry could be just a popular fad with no social intention behind it.

Deliberate or not, if you’re guilty of vocal fry be aware it destroys your vocal chords and can negatively impact your job prospects, especially if you’re female. A study published in the online journal PLOS found that in a mock interview an overwhelming majority of people preferred to hire a woman who did not use it.

So, apart from hanging out with really confident, well-spoken, non-vocal frying friends, what’s a girl to do to sound smarter?

“What Tannen and others have found is that, inherently, men tend to be more direct speakers, and women tend to be more indirect,” Charles Craver, Professor of Law at George Washington University, tells BTR.

Over his 40 years teaching law, Craver says he’s noticed that at the beginning of a term, women and men in his class conform to these principles. Furthermore, women speak up far less than men, and when a woman makes a suggestion at a conference table it falls on deaf ears. However, if the same suggestion is proposed by a man 30 minutes later it is suddenly well-received.

“I always tell my [female] students when that happens you should say ‘thank you for supporting my prior suggestion,’” he laughs.

At the end of the term, however, Craver administers negotiation exercise exams, and he has never observed any significant divergence in results between men and women.

“I think what happens is when you have formal training, many of the gender based differences are eliminated,” he says.

Formal training may be accomplished through law or business school, but it could also be taught through speech and debate courses, self-awareness exercises, or even simply over-preparing before you speak on a subject. Focusing on speech practice as a facet of professional development while you garner other skills can ultimately become more fruitful than trying to change your voice altogether.