TV & Movies

Is Your Womanly Voice Hurting Your Career Prospects?

Why one woman went to lengths to make her voice more manly—and the intrinsic gender bias problems it raises

Successful cutesy, uptalker Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde (Photo: Everett Collection)

Successful lawyer and cutesy uptalker Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde (Photo: Everett Collection)

Your woman-y voice and tendency to uptalk (ending a sentence with a questioning lilt) may be a problem, career-wise, or so suggests an NPR story (via Jezebel) that features a woman who attempted to man-up her voice in an effort to be taken more seriously at work.

NYC litigator Monica Hanna told NPR reporter Laura Starecheski that her naturally high voice drew negative attention at work. After one presentation the only comment she got from a male colleague was “your voice is very high.”

He said nothing about the content she’d presented.

The slight struck a nerve, and Hanna sought out the aid of a vocal coach so that she could find a “more masculine” sound. She aimed to imitate a man—to lose the musical speech patterns of women and adopt the “staccato, percussive” patterns that men are most known for. She was instructed to use fewer words, be more direct, lose the upspeak, and to say “Hello” instead of “Hi.”

She also stopped saying things like “Aww…” and “That’s cute,” which makes me wonder how she responds to cat videos.

A strong voice is surely an asset when public speaking is part of your job—that’s a concern that includes both men and women. But Hanna’s self-improvement story is complicated slightly by the real gender biases that exist when it comes to the female voice.

As evidenced in the NPR story, studies continually reveal that we rate the male voice over the female voice, with feminine voices deemed “less secure,” “less competent” and “less trustworthy” by comparison.

Cambridge University professor Mary Beard recently drew attention to our cultural problem with women’s voices. In a lecture called, Oh Do Shut Up Dear! she suggests that we implicitly assign authority to the male voice, and rankle when women dare to speak up publicly, and that we have done so since antiquity.

The NPR piece raises interesting questions for both men and women to consider. Perhaps the most pressing being, how do we collectively dial back centuries of prejudice? Prejudice that makes a colleague think expressing “your voice is very high” actually qualifies as constructive criticism.

To get ahead, should women simply accept the double standard and try to sound like James Earl Jones in the workplace?

Maybe.

But I’ve got a feeling that even if every woman on earth conjured her inner Darth Vader it still wouldn’t be enough.  Someone, somehow, would find yet another thing about women—our noisy shoes, our jiggly breasts—that makes us seem less competent.

To combat that new prejudice we’d jump through more hoops, and all in the hope that by being more like a man that we’ll somehow circumvent the seemingly unwavering opposition to equality that exists all around us.

I don’t know but vocal training for women seems kind of like handing a hamster yet another wheel to distract him from the fact that he’s sitting in a cage.

Me, I’ll stick with my “less competent” voice. Because, screechy or not, it’s still a voice, and I don’t take its potential power lightly.

 

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