Voice & Power
The ways in which women and men speak are often perceived differently, giving rise to the distorted idea that men’s voices hold more power and sway. Where does this silencing of women in public come from? It is often attributed to a historical gendered split between public and private worlds. Men have traditionally held sway in the public spheres of law, politics, science and business. Women, however, have been confined to the private sphere and domestic concerns such as family and household activities. The 16th-century theologian John Knox believed that women were weak, foolish and incapable of wielding authority. Such prejudices, although always contested by some, were still much in evidence at the beginning of the 20th century. For example, the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen declared that women had a much-diminished capacity for language when compared to men, and that their ability to read quickly could be attributed to the ‘vacant chambers’ of their minds: they were unable to think clearly or deeply and so quickly skimmed over the surface of the meanings of language.
With respect to speech, a deeply held belief is that women speak with a ‘different voice’ from men. Women supposedly speak in co-operative, consensual ways and men speak in confrontational, direct styles. In fact, there is no evidence for this. Research has shown that there are many more similarities between men and women’s speech than these stereotypes would suggest. Women and men are actually equally confrontational or consensual depending on what the professional context demands in terms of speech.
Women are also still criticised for entering what are deemed to be male public spaces. This is typified by the hostile reaction to Vicki Sparks, the first woman to provide commentary on a men’s World Cup football match on UK television in 2018. Sparks’s voice was described as ‘squeaky’, a common complaint about women speaking in previously all-male contexts, and her sporting knowledge and ability to provide commentary was also questioned.
According to the BBC’s Worklife, Cecilia Pemberton at the University of South Australia studied the voices of two groups of Australian women aged 18–25 years. The researchers compared archival recordings of women talking in 1945 with more recent recordings taken in the early 1990s. The team found that the “fundamental frequency” had dropped by 23 Hz over five decades – from an average of 229 Hz (roughly an A# below middle C) to 206 Hz (roughly a G#). That’s a significant, audible difference.
Women today speak at a deeper pitch than their mothers or grandmothers would have done, thanks to the changing power dynamics between men and women.
Interestingly, the influence of perceived dominance on vocal pitch can also be heard when you compare voices between countries. Women in the Netherlands consistently talk in deeper voices than women in Japan, for instance, and this seems to be linked to the prevailing gender stereotypes – independence versus powerlessness, for instance – in the different cultures (an inequality that is also reflected in a much larger gender pay gap in Japan). Joey Cheng of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign points out that these changing vocal dynamics may not always be an advantage for women, even in the countries where a deeper speaking voice is now more common. She also said,
“While lower voices – and other assertive behaviour in general – effectively signal and assert power and authority in women, as it does in men, it might also have the unintended effect of undermining how well liked they are,” she says, pointing to research showing that a deeper voice is considered to be less sexually attractive and less agreeable, for instance.
In this way, it could be another example of the “double-bind” that women face in the workplace, in which the very same qualities that are praised in men may still be judged negatively in their female colleagues. Just consider the media’s discussions of Hillary Clinton, who was considered either to be too “shrill” or too “unemotional”. The deeper speaking voices may be one audible sign of progress, but we clearly still have a long way to go before we eliminate those prejudices.”
We are very pleased to have Laura Westring, writer, poet and speech writing instructor, join us for our IWD event on the 16th March.
Laura began a career in speech writing in Brussels after introducing US President Barack Obama’s ‘Address to European youth’ in 2014 with her own speech on the role of fathers in helping their daughters to succeed. In 2016, Laura returned home to join what she considered to be a growing “business for good” movement in Scotland; advising businesses and politicians on ethical communications and occasionally writing guest essays for The Scotsman.
In 2021, Laura began writing children’s stories while playing with her young son, inspired by their somewhat unconventional cottage in Stirlingshire and the many creatures they’ve become accustomed to sharing it with. Laura is a Senior Fellow of the Landecker Democracy Fellowship, a supplier of speech writing training to the Scottish Parliament and a 2022 finalist for Business Women Scotland’s Inspirational Woman of the Year award.
Laura has worked with Keystone in the past, delivering our course, The power of words to please the ear, engage the mind and move the heart. Laura’s professional experience has led her to help women find their own way to public speaking and teach strategies to overcome audience bias. Because women are judged more harshly – by audiences of men and women – on how they sound, how they dress and how they come across. Women have to work harder to be considered funny, likeable, knowledgeable or insightful.
Why Female Voices May Be the Future
Bunny Studio recently wrote, “A recent voice-over trend report revealed that demand for female voice is increasing. It showed that the number of new job postings for female voices is growing faster (24%) than the rate of new jobs posted for males (16%). And it’s a trend that is gaining momentum.”
I have to admit, however, you can find equal supporting articles for male over female voice preferences. What does seem true, is that most people prefer masculine voices (even in women). Study after study suggested that low voices, “masculine” voices, are an asset to those seeking leadership roles, in politics and beyond. How does vocal pitch influence the perception of other types of authority figures–caregivers, educators, business executives, media personalities? What other predictions do we make when it comes to our conceptions of voice and leadership? For women in particular, what other assumptions are baked into the way we understand vocal capacities. Whatever your voice sounds like, make sure you feel heard. Like all good things, this take time, introspection, skills and practice but your voice matters. If you want more support from us- our next cohort starts on the 17th April. Watch out for our early bird offer which starts on IWD!