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Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

Unspoken phenomenon: why women are deepening their voices in the workplace

Fearing that they aren’t being listened to or taken seriously, more women than you know are lowering their voices in professional environments

“First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you and then all of a sudden, you change the world,” Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’s unusually deep baritone voice famously declared. Alongside her signature Steve Jobs-inspired black turtleneck and wide, unblinking eyes, Holmes’s low voice was a key part of her public persona, making her sound more like a member of her high profile board of directors and investors (Rupert Murdoch, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz et al.) than the young woman she was. 

Many people believe, however, that Holmes’s voice was as fraudulent as her company turned out to be: a put-on inflection to give off a more authoritative impression and part of the package she used to scam her way to the top. In a trailer for Theranos series The Dropout, star Amanda Seyfried is shown practising her new voice in the mirror. “This is an inspiring step forward,” she repeats over and over in increasingly deep tones. 

Holmes is not the only famous woman to have reportedly changed her voice in an effort to succeed professionally in a male-dominated arena. Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher is said to have deepened her natural voice, to the point of damaging her vocal chords, after being advised that it was “schoolmarmish”, “bossy” and “dangerous to passing sparrows”. Thatcher’s publicity adviser Gordon Reece was reportedly overheard coaching her with the phrase, ‘The socialists must learn that enough is enough.’

On average, women speak at a higher pitch than men; about an octave higher. The average range of an adult woman spans from 165 to 255 Hz, while for a man it’s 85 to 155 Hz. This is because during puberty, men experience a surge of testosterone which causes their vocal cords to elongate and thicken leading to deeper pitches. Meanwhile, women have a larger gap between their vocal cords which allows more air to pass through, giving their voices a “breathy” quality. 

This shouldn’t pose any problems in and of itself, but as a group we have – mostly unconsciously – assigned social characteristics to the pitches of voices. A 2012 study found participants were more likely to vote for political candidates with lower pitched voices which they perceived as more socially-dominant. Researchers in Canada found that people “trusted lower-pitched female voices more in general” (although not in a mate-poaching context), while in 2016, research suggested people find men and women with lower voices to be more authoritative and dominant. These perceptions have led to such things as voice deeping procedures which surgery clinics advertise for people who want to feel “more confident and successful in their personal and professional lives”.

When it comes to their professional lives, women in the public eye have long struggled to succeed because of their higher-pitched voices. In 1926, a survey found a ratio of 100 to 1 people preferred male radio hosts to female ones who they found “shrill” (a word often used to criticise women, most recently and notably Hillary Clinton). “A woman without bass registers in her voice would find it very hard to get on in broadcasting unless she was exceptionally beautiful,” news anchor Jon Snow once said.

“It’s led people to underestimate me or make assumptions about me. My voice is soft, so they presume I am” – Mia

“It’s led people to underestimate me or make assumptions about me. My voice is soft, so they presume I am,” says journalist Mia*. In her 30s, Mia’s breathy, self-described “candy floss” voice often leads cold-callers to ask her if ‘mummy or daddy are home?’ “A soft, young-sounding voice has strong connotations of gentleness, inexperience, even a lack of intelligence,” she says, adding that because of this she consciously tries to keep her voice lower when conducting interviews. 

In fact, of the six women interviewed for this piece – ranging in age from mid-20s to late-30s, in fields spanning finance, advertising, journalism and the charity sector, all of whom felt they had higher than average pitched voices – five reported that they purposefully deepened their voices in professional environments. Among the reasons given were to sound “more calm”, “in control”, “competent” and “cooler”.

“No one with a high-pitched voice ever sounds cool and professional, and I worry a lot of the time it comes across as annoying,” says Jennifer* who is in her 20s and an editor at a weekly magazine. Jennifer says she fears a combination of her youth, style and voice has led her to be taken less seriously at work, with her high-pitched voice giving the impression that she is younger than she is. “It’s particularly noticeable when I’m in a room full of men,” she says.

Like Jennifer, Victoria*, who works in finance, is conscious of the ways she stands out in a professional environment dominated by men. “A lot of them are old school bankers and they are very non-welcoming. They don’t like it when there’s someone in the room who is different to them,” she says. “They like to keep things within their boys club.” As well as putting on a lower-pitched voice in meetings, to blend in Victoria makes an effort to not dress overly feminine, tie her hair up, wear glasses but not perfume and keep her body language masculine.

“Sounding like you belong can be really important,” says Dr Jillian O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychology at Queen’s University whose research focuses on how vocal traits influence our perceptions of people. Over thousands of years of evolution, Dr O’Connor explains, humans have learned to use the voice, including pitch, accent and speech patterns, to determine whether someone is a friend or a foe, whether they belong to our group or if they’re from another, potentially threatening, group. “It’s about social cohesion where being accepted by your group members can be a matter of survival,” she says.  

Although mostly no longer a matter of survival, subconsciously identifying members of our group still plays a significant role in our social interactions. “Oh, they sound like me, they’re probably a member of my group, we can talk about more confidential or private information without worrying about the potential cost,” as Dr O’Connor puts it. No one wants to be on the outside of the group, especially when it comes to our careers, so we might end up playing down the features that make us different in order to fit in more.

Another matter of survival is that pitch is very often linked to size and therefore sound carries a lot of important information: think the difference between a little mouse squeak and a deep lion roar. Lower pitches often indicate strength, size and dominance, while higher pitches are associated with small size and youth, and often are perceived as more submissive. “We can think about physical dominance in terms of someone who is big and muscular and could protect you, or social dominance in terms of someone that we listen to, that we see as a leader,” says Dr O’Connor. Those two perceptions often go hand in hand, and the lines get blurred. “It’s both social and ingrained, it’s really hard to disentangle the two,” she says. “If culture does have a role here [in linking deep pitch to power], what it is doing is reinforcing the biologically based perceptions.”

“I think a lot of it is perception of what power is, and power is a lower voice” – Sylvie Lui 

Biology also comes into play when we think about how our voices change with different emotions. Many people find that when they are nervous or upset, their voice becomes higher and more shrill as the tension in their body is reflected in their voice. “The emotional response in the body is to tighten all the muscles which means the voice starts to shoot up,” explains voice coach Sylvie Lui. Relaxed voices, meanwhile, will usually sit at the lower end of our range. Being calm and in control are often seen as desirable leadership qualities, while more emotional responses are linked (by men) to irrationality. “When you’re lowering your voice, what happens is that it sounds like you have more grounding and it sounds like there is a calmer assertiveness,” Lui says. “I think a lot of it is perception of what power is, and power is a lower voice.” 

In her job as a voice coach, Lui works primarily with professionals across executive, senior and mid-level management at companies including JP Morgan, Deloitte, and Deutsche Bank. Often male-dominated environments, Lui says the women working at these companies come to her believing that they aren’t being taken seriously and that having a lower-pitched voice will give them a greater sense of authority in the workplace. “What they are trying to do is show up in a way that these people will hear them,” she says. 

Because ultimately, we can’t discard the influence that centuries of patriarchy have had on how we think of dominance, authority, and competence and who wields them. In western society, it is men who have been the leaders, who have been in the workplace, who have established the culture and who have dictated what power sounds like. Sometimes it just comes back to the fact that “some people will trust men more than women”, as Lui says.