Ask a woman if anybody has ever complained about her voice and, chances are, you’ll get a story. Watch the above animated video, and you’ll see what we mean.
Your voice is too squeaky, it’s too loud, it lacks authority, it sounds childish, it’s grating or obnoxious or unprofessional.
We put together a list of six top complaints. Rindy Anderson, a biology professor at Florida Atlantic University, provides some context. Anderson used to study birdsong but has since done a number of studies with her political scientist husband, Casey Klofstad of the University of Miami, on the perception of women’s voices.
1. Your Voice Is Too High
Women’s voices tend to be higher than men’s, at least partly because their vocal cords are thinner and shorter than men’s. That’s related to hormones (having a lot less testosterone than men) and genetics and a bunch of other factors. This can be a liability for women whose voices are naturally high, since Anderson’s research suggests lower voices are perceived as more “competent.” You can pull a Margaret Thatcher and get coaching to speak lower, but that’ll only get you so far.
2. You Sound Like A Child
This is related to No. 1. Children have high voices, so I guess women with high voices sound childlike — even when they’re fully grown professionals — like a 5-foot-tall, high-voiced New York City litigator who sometimes gets mistaken for a teenager (she took lessons to sound more commanding, just like Thatcher).
3. You Don’t Sound Authoritative
Lower voices are associated with being powerful and authoritative. When NPR’s Susan Stamberg became the first woman to anchor a national nightly news broadcast, there was opposition. People said a woman’s voice wouldn’t carry, Stamberg recalls: ” ‘A woman’s voice is not authoritative. People will not believe her; she will not be taken seriously.’ ” That was the ’70s, and now it’s well understood that women — even if their voices are not low and booming — are believable and can have authority. … Psych! Women still get this all the time.
4. You’ve Got Vocal Fry
Vocal fry happens when you drop your voice to its lowest register and it fries, or crackles or creaks. Lots of people go nuts about vocal fry and how it’s terrible. Anderson’s research suggests that people who use vocal fry are less hirable and perceived as less trustworthy. It’s not actually clear that women use it more than men, but they certainly get the lion’s share of flak for it.
5. Is That A Question?
Ah, uptalk. It’s when you go up at the end of your sentence? Even when it’s not a question? Every once in a while there’s pandemonium about uptalk invading our speech. “Uptalk is a really old vocal affectation,” Anderson says. “It dates back to the 19th century — some people believe — in Britain.” So much for a new fad. Anderson also has some interesting ideas about why it’s used. “There’s some evidence that women who find themselves in a socially dominant position will use uptalk in order to soften that dominance.” Another theory? It’s a way of indicating to your listener that you’re not done yet — a kind of “Are you with me?” asked through inflection.
6. Your Voice Is Too Low
Now this is just unfair: If women’s voices aren’t too high, they are sometimes perceived as too low. “Humans like average,” Anderson says. “We don’t want a high, squeaky voice on a woman, but we also don’t want a really low, booming voice on a woman.” Because, she says, that’s sex atypical — it sounds too manly. That is, unless you’re Lauren Bacall.
And so, today, many women in positions of power are advised to modulate their voice pitch and speech patterns to match their male counterparts. Maybe when more women achieve positions of power, what we perceive as a powerful, competent voice will start to broaden and change.
This story is part of NPR’s periodic series, The Changing Lives of Women.