What does a leader sound like?
According to research into how people perceive voices, a deep baritone is much more likely to connote leadership than a breathy soprano.
“If we ask people who sounds like a leader, who sounds like they would be dominant or in charge, even when it comes to women’s voices, it’s usually the lower pitched voice that is preferred in terms of leadership,” says Jillian O’Connor, assistant professor of psychology at Queen’s University, whose research focuses on how the voice influences our perceptions of others. “[And] if we ask people who sounds more trustworthy, it’s still a lower pitched voice.”
Even in stereotypically feminine leadership settings, like parent-teacher associations and school boards, this preference holds, says Dr. O’Connor. The gender of the audience also doesn’t seem to matter. When someone is speaking as a subject-matter expert, such as giving a TED Talk or a presentation at work, both men and women subconsciously lower their voices, says Dr. O’Connor.
“It’s about lower pitch being [perceived as] more authoritative, more dominant and more powerful.”
There are other vocal characteristics commonly held against women, says Dr. O’Connor. Research has found that vocal fry – that creaky-sounding finish on words popularized by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian – connotes that women aren’t “very reliable, competent or even educated.”
The same goes for “uptalk,” where every sentence sounds like you’re asking a question, which also has a “negative effect,” she adds.
Like many biases, much of this is unconscious, says Dr. O’Connor.
“If we’re listening to a presentation, we might not think that we’re being influenced by how their voice sounds, but it only takes about a hundred milliseconds for us to [get] a first impression of someone, based only on how their voice sounds alone,” she says. “That can change how we evaluate what they say next, or how we think of them the next time we encounter them. Your gut responses to someone’s voice can have pretty far-reaching effects.”
Permission to speak
These findings are likely no surprise to anyone who has felt insecure about the way they speak in the workplace. Perhaps you’ve had feedback from a boss on how you might fare better with that promotion if you didn’t say “like” so much. Or maybe you’ve been told you need to “speak up” in meetings – only to be reprimanded for being “aggressive” the one time you got passionate about something on a client call. Or maybe you inwardly cringe as your voice squeaks its way to a high C during a difficult conversation with a team member.
The solution is not for women to try and sound more like men, says Dr. O’Connor.
“Historically and currently, we know that women are generally judged more harshly on traits that are irrelevant to their job, like their appearance or their voice,” she says. “If we deliberately change our voices, it could work to reinforce those stereotypes that exist, and I don’t think that’s beneficial to anyone, either the speakers or the listeners.”
Samara Bay couldn’t agree more. The speech and dialect coach who has worked with Hollywood actors, politicians and C-suite executives, recently published Permission To Speak: How to Change What Power Sounds Like, Starting with You.
It’s not about doing 100 vocal warm-ups to win friends and influence people, she says. It’s not about what we sound like at all.
“It’s our relationship to our voice that’s holding us back,” says Ms. Bay. “Our relationship to our voice is a reflection of a lot of the cultural crap that we’ve absorbed.”
Hating our voice because our culture hates our voice, she says, is an “endless cycle” until it’s broken. And, like many other destructive cycles, breaking it starts with letting go of shame.
“We need to acknowledge that every habit we’ve picked up, we’ve picked up for a reason, and to honour our resilience and adaptability,” Ms. Bay says. Part of that is realizing that your vocal “weaknesses” – be it vocal fry, speaking too softly, talking “too much” – have sometimes been the very same things that helped propel you forward in other contexts. For example, your manner of speech might have helped you feel like you were part of a group or helped you connect with someone.
Rather than trying to hide behind your voice in the same way you might hide behind a power suit, she suggests, embrace your authenticity and use it to shape the impact you want to make in the world.
That’s not an easy task in toxic work environments where a “feminine” manner of speaking can be weaponized against you, she notes.
It’s for this reason that Ms. Bay’s book focuses on what she calls “deep permission work” – excavating all the mindsets and internalized biases that can make you feel like there’s something wrong with an authentic version of your voice in the first place.
It’s intense, therapeutic internal work, where the actual soundwaves coming out of your voice box are corollary to the main objective: Feeling like you deserve to speak and be heard.
“The voice is a container for massive questions about our identity, our agency, our sense of worthiness in the world – and that’s what’s actually at stake here,” Ms. Bay says.
Rejecting old habits
With all that said, Ms. Bay notes that we can use our voices to get what we want. In some situations, that may mean adapting your voice in certain contexts, like scrubbing your speech of the word “like” to be taken seriously in a room of older men.
According to Dr. O’Connor, women’s communication patterns tend to differ from men’s. In workplaces, particularly in male-dominated ones that favour more direct communication, typically “feminine” ways of communicating are less effective.
“[Women] are more likely to talk around the specific goal, or be more passive, or say things like ‘Sorry,’ to excuse their own interjections or their own conflicting perspectives,” she says.
Ms. Bay says it’s useful to examine the habits we may have picked up – to keep us small, to make us seem tougher than we are – that don’t serve us any more. “These are negotiations we’re making every day,” she says. “We change how we talk based on who we’re around, and it’s a skill that’s unique to humans.”
It’s just that the conversation shouldn’t stop there, she adds. In pivotal work moments, such as a major presentation or speech, it’s important to ask ourselves: “What do we do in the moments that matter? What version of us shows up then? If we want to make an impact, if we want to get that ‘yes’ with our voice, we must reveal instead of hide.”
It’s about moving away from a “fear-based” approach to public speaking to a “love-based” one, she says.
That takes time, of course. But if you have to give a speech in, say, an hour? Ms. Bay still has an exercise for you.
“Prime yourself for permission and power by bringing to mind a really visceral memory of someone you admire admiring you back, or somebody really getting you,” she says. “Bring that memory to mind, breathe it in, and allow the freedom inside of that memory to prime you for walking into that space, and having that experience again.”
Correction: This story was originally published with a headline that did not accurately represent the article, or The Globe’s standards. We apologize for the error and have corrected the headline.
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