Even if someone hasn’t found their voice, we can all agree that people’s voices are perceived differently depending on their age, race, enunciation, accent, and well, yes, gender.
In the past, women were primarily left in the private domestic realm, leaving men to do the talking on the agora. Slowly but surely as the centuries passed and the separation remained, public speaking became associated with men across all fields and disciplines. In other words, we started to build a traditional link between men’s (low) voices and public authority. The societal division based on gendered lines coupled with this association led to a perpetual cycle of reproduction where leadership positions across all fields could only be occupied by men. Later on, recordings of women’s voices in public have been of privileged women, meaning white upper-class women, thereby reproducing the marginalisation of most other women.
While seemingly trivial, your voice shapes the way people perceive you and what characteristics they will associate with you. The rigid association between low voice, masculinity, and authority still to this day present obstacles for many individuals speaking in public or in the workplace. Not only to women but also transgender people who sometimes undergo gender affirming voice care to match their gender identity with societal expectations.
Whereas we often find it normal for men to tell others what to do, when women do this, society still considers it to be unfeminine. This leads to negative judgments such as labelling these women as ‘bossy’ or ‘pushy’. Some research suggests that women have altered their voices through the last decades because they have entered the public space and positions of power. Notably, former UK Prime Minister in the 80s, Margaret Thatcher, took lessons to make her voice seem deeper, more assertive, firmer, and more powerful. Researchers state the frequency of women’s voices has 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#).
Whether consciously or unconsciously, it seems like women have altered their voices to gain more authority, seeking to reproduce men’s lower register. The researchers point out that changing their voice is not necessarily an advantage for women. Although lowering your voices is perceived as more authoritative, it also has an effect on how well liked you will be as a feminine figure. A deeper voice in women is perceived as less sexually attractive and less agreeable for instance.
Yet, a study from 2022 challenged these older studies. It argues that what we expect from men and women leaders is different. Whereas men leaders are expected to be assertive, controlling, aggressive, and self-confident, women leaders are expected to care about others, be helpful, calm, kind, and sympathetic. People tend to expect a more communal type of leadership, which doesn’t necessarily match with a lower, more dominant register. In a nutshell, a woman using a lower register seems to violate the (sexist) expectations placed on women leaders, which means altering one’s voice for women leaders is far from needed to sound like a good and trustworthy leader. The findings also state that a lower voice won’t necessarily hurt women leaders, especially if this is their natural pitch.
So, let your voice be heard! We are listening.