Do Women With Lower Voice Pitch Have More Authority, Achieve Greater Success?

Should Women Lower their Voice Pitch? The Bias Against Women's Voices

person at microphone
(TeachAIDS/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Do we respond differently to the sound of a voice based on its gender? Do men's voices have more authority and are women's voices more friendly? These questions skim the surface of an overlooked aspect of gender discrimination -- bias that arises from how we judge a female voice, especially pitch.

Typically, gender bias against women is rooted in optics. We look at hair color, body shape, size, weight, height, physical attractiveness and make assumptions.

Clothing, skirt length, and style of attire provide visual cues that fuel stereotypes and feed into gender expectations. Take away sight and we still jump to conclusions, but now the pitch of a woman's voice becomes the yardstick by which we measure her worth.

Picture the stereotypical "dumb blonde." How does she sound? Either we imagine her voice as high and squeaky, or soft and breathy like Marilyn Monroe. It's sexy, but it doesn't convey authority or increase trust.

Going Low

To gain authority, women have long believed that it's better to pitch their voices lower. And experts have discovered that most women are following that dictum. Over the past 50 years, women's voices have dropped significantly. Although women's voices normally register a full octave higher than men's voices, today they're just 2/3rds of an octave higher.

The most prominent example of this vocal divide can be seen in the media where an enormous distinction exists between the types of products sold by female voices and those pitched by male voices.

At first glance, it might appear that women and men enjoy parity based on the number of voiceovers on TV commercials. Women's voices are commonplace in commercials that sell everyday household items such as dishwashing detergent, toilet bowl cleaners, diapers, paper towels. But commercials selling big-ticket items such as cars and trucks are largely the domain of male voices.

That's because of the sexual politics surrounding how we perceive male and female voices. Writing for the UK website the New Humanist, Sally Feldman observes:

[There's] a basic difference between the way men and women tend to speak. Whereas men often breathe from their abdomen, women are more likely to constrict their voices to an upper range which allows less variety and less control. In a recent collection of essays, Well-Tuned Women, Kristin Linklater writes: “When a high voice connects with a strong impulse based, for instance, in anger or fear, it becomes shrill, strident, screechy, piercing, nasal, penetrating, sharp, squeaky or brassy and generally unpleasant to the point of causing major distress in the hearers.”

Men, on the other hand, with their deeper voices and richer tones, find it easier to convey authority and control. It’s partly physiological. Men’s voices are lower than women’s because they have a larger larynx, developed in the Adam’s apple at puberty, and longer, thicker vocal folds....

Anne Karpf [author of The Human Voice] argues that men have come to assert power through their deep voices and resonant tones to such an extent that “pitch has become a weapon in the gender wars."

Men in Control

Look beyond TV commercials and you'll see how effectively men have wielded the power of pitch in the gender wars. "Ever notice there are no female announcers on game shows?" asks veteran voice actor Lora Cain. None serve as announcers on TV talk shows, and very few do network promos or movie trailers -- two of the most prestigious and highly-coveted jobs in the voiceover industry.

According to Cain, statistics bear this out. Men do 80% of the voice work while women accounting for only 20%.

Why does gender discrimination exist in a field where it's not how you look but how you sound? Cain feels it's because those positions of clout that determine whether a voice will be male or female -- namely, writers and directors -- are held primarily by men. "The key is more women writers and women directors," she observed in a recent phone interview.

"If there were more women writers, there'd be more of a tendency to say, 'Let's consider a woman for this.'"

Opening Doors for Women

Voiceover professional Lora Cain is one of just a handful of women competing at the upper levels of this male dominated field, and she's acutely aware of how the deck is stacked against female announcers and women voice actors. "There's this belief that women don't sound good in certain situations or that women don't like to listen to women. Where's the logic in that?" she argues. "Women talk to each other, and women make 80% of the buying decisions in this country. But when a woman wants advice on what to buy, she's not as likely to ask her male partner as she is a female friend...or even another woman standing in line at the bathroom. That's just what women do. So of course we listen to other women. We seek out each others' opinions. We are our greatest resource. I'm hoping that we can change that belief little by little."

Cain credits changing opinions in the industry as opening doors for women. "What's popular now is the 'real person' sound. It's created new opportunities and that's really wonderful. But women are still shut out of certain jobs where there's an expectation that you need to have a certain weight behind your voice. Some say that women don't have that, but that's not true."

She cites Randy Thomas as a woman with vocal "weight." Described as the most recognized female voice in America, Thomas is best known as the voice of the TV show Entertainment Tonight and the Hooked on Phonics commercials.

Thomas shattered the voiceover glass ceiling in 1993 when she became the first female announcer of the Academy Awards. Since then, she's done the Oscars at least seven times as well as the Miss America Pageant and the Democratic National Convention. She's the first announcer -- male or female -- to hit the trifecta of announcing the Big Three Awards -- the Oscars, the Tonys and the Primetime Emmys -- in a single year.

Confidence

Thomas has broken out of the pack of female voice talent due to "that authoritative voice," as Cain describes it.

"You hear it and you believe her."

This authority and forcefulness is ultimately the biggest hurdle facing women in the voiceover industry -- and in business as well. Listeners, like clients and co-workers, are more willing to place their trust in the voice that sounds confident and assured.

The Count Is In

A March 2010 AdweekMedia/Harris Poll bears out these findings. Researchers asked participants to listen to male and female voiceovers in commercials and judge them based on various criteria. When asked who sounded "more forceful," 48% chose the male voiceover while only 2% chose the female. When asked who sounded "more soothing," respondents overwhelmingly chose the female voiceover -- 48% vs. only 8% for the male. Both genders were regarded as equally "persuasive" with 18% choosing the male voiceover vs. 19% choosing the female.

Yet when it comes to major purchases, authority seems to trump soothing or persuasive. When asked which voiceover would be "more likely to sell" them on buying a car or a computer, respondents chose the male voice 3-4 times more often than the female; only 7% chose the female voice in either situation. In comparison 28% of respondents felt the male voiceover was more likely to sell them a car, and 23% felt they were more likely to buy a computer based on the male voice.

The problem is that we "hear" gender first and form assumptions about the speaker even before we have a chance to assess timbre, pitch, speed, clarity, and other vocal qualities that might establish authority or trust. Unfortunately, "hearing" gender isn't all that different from seeing gender when we discriminate based on sex alone and assign characteristics to physical traits often arbitrarily, stereotypically, and unfairly.

Crossing Barriers

Like Thomas, Cain has come up against the structural bias inherent in an industry where voices are judged by how well they "sell." She's been taking a crack at another glass ceiling -- announcing TV game shows -- as the only woman among half a dozen candidates vying to announce the popular syndicated show Wheel of Fortune. When the show's longtime male announcer passed away in November 2010, Caine pushed for the producer to consider a woman.

Although there are no female announcers on any games shows currently in production, Cain is optimistic, noting, "We go through these cycles -- in the 80s and 90s women could be heard as announcers on game shows although they were mostly cable channels." When she pointed out to Wheel of Fortune executive producer Harry Friedman that there were no other women announcers on TV game shows today, he was willing to give her a shot.

Although the person behind the voice usually remains invisible, Cain's putting her thoughts forward -- along with her voice -- to make audiences aware that women are capable of doing the same quality work as men, just as they do in every other career field.

"I'm calling attention to this," Cain explains, "because we need to recognize when women cross these barriers. At the same time, however, it would be nice to have viewers listen to someone like Randy Thomas and think, 'Oh, she sounds great' instead of focusing solely on the fact that, 'Oh, that's a woman.'"

Sources

Camber, Rebecca. "Why women who want to get ahead get a husky voice." DailyMail.co.uk.

Dolliver, Mark. "How People React to Male vs. Female Voiceovers." Adweek.com. 8 March 2010.

Feldman, Sally. "Speak up." NewHumanist.org.uk.

Hendrickson, Paula. "Choice Voice." EMMY Magazine at RandyThomasVO.com.