Women speaking in the public eye, without obvious nervousness, stutters or speech impediments, still frequently find their voice quality or tone remarked upon, sometimes to the exclusion of any comment on or engagement with their actual words and arguments.
There are the accusations of sounding “shrill” or “hysterical” (for example, Senator George Brandis in 2015 telling Senator Penny Wong she was “becoming hysterical” before telling her “just calm yourself”), and there are also complaints about sounding “grating”, “ditzy” or “like an airhead” – and some even more inventive insults like this one sent to the Nine Network about accomplished reporters Lisa Wilkinson and Georgie Gardner: “Hello Producer. I am totally fed up with the combination of Lisa and Georgie they’re shocking together and it’s like listening to a chorus of cats.”
It’s worth remembering that advising women about their voices is nothing new – just like advising women to be silent. Woman’s World, a comprehensive late-1950s manual for women on beauty, cooking, etiquette and deportment, has a chapter called ‘Voicing Your Charm’. Some of the advice is helpful, and includes avoiding the excessive use of “like” or “um” in sentences, and making sure what you have to say is worthwhile.
Fortunately, not many people these days will openly admit to not wanting to listen to women, but a surprisingly large number of people still angrily comment on how annoying women’s voices are, apparently in the belief that the female-ness of the speaker is not the issue, but that they just “sound wrong”.
When not being criticised for sounding shrill, women tend to cop complaints for things like valleyspeak (a style of speaking originating in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, which became internationally popular for a time, featuring rising intonation and frequent use of words like “totally” and “like”) and uptalk (ending sentences with an upward inflection), or having nasal, high-pitched or breathy voices.
They’re also censured for something called ‘vocal fry’ or ‘creaky voice’: speaking in the lower register of their voices until it creates a ‘fry’ – glottalisation, or that creaky guttural popping sound in the back of the throat. It became headline news in 2015 because there was an apparent “epidemic” of young women who spoke this way. (Numerous news reports actually used that very term, epidemic, as if women’s use of vocal fry were on par with polio.)
Gravelly voices in men have traditionally been deemed authoritative, even sexy. In women, they’re unfeminine, annoying, off-putting, an epidemic.
It is less often pointed out that many men also speak this way, including actors Al Pacino and Bruce Willis, and noted linguist, philosopher and political commentator Noam Chomsky. Linguistics professor Mark Liberman contends that the “low creaky vibrations” of vocal fry “have been common since forever” among both men and women, though previously they were more notable amongst – yep – men, because their voices tend to be lower in the register to begin with.
Casey Klofstad, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, observed in a radio interview that “Lower-pitched voices are seen as more authoritative, more dominant and, in men, more sexually attractive. So one could make a reasonable argument that if a woman sort of lowers her voice to the lowest register, as one does with vocal fry, that maybe that’s a way for her to connote those positive characteristics.” Then he added: “But, on the other hand, there are folks like you and me personally who find the affectation off-putting.”
Gravelly voices in men have traditionally been deemed authoritative, even sexy. In women, they’re unfeminine, annoying, off-putting, an epidemic. The 2014 study most often cited in the “epidemic” articles is one that concludes we judge women more harshly than men for the same verbal tics – ranking them as less hireable and less “trustworthy”.
Consider the word “like”. When you think of someone who uses that word a lot as a filler in conversation, what kind of person comes to mind? Would that person be, say, female? Perhaps even blonde? Mark Liberman analysed 12,000 phone conversations and discovered that although young people used filler words such as “like” more often than people of older generations, men actually used the terms “in, like, the” and “on, like, the” more often than women, and concluded: “There’s no evidence that women insert non-traditional like into their conversation more often than men do.”
The fact that so many people have issues with women’s voices suggests a much larger and more objectionable issue of unconscious bias.
(On the topic of how women’s presentation style is judged, ever heard of ‘Resting Bitch Face’ or ‘RBF’? That thing where some women, when they don’t smile, look, well, ‘bitchy’? Some researchers went ahead and studied it, and they “detected RBF in male and female faces in equal measure”, explains one of the authors of the study, Abbe Macbeth. “Which means that the idea of RBF as a predominantly female phenomenon has little to do with facial physiology and more to do with social norms.” Again, it appears we often judge women more harshly for traits common in both sexes.)
Some of the criticism or ‘guidance’ directed at women’s speech is well intended, of course – if women’s voice habits do affect their employability, we all want them to have their best chance in the job market etc. But the fact that so many people have issues with women’s voices suggests a much larger and more objectionable issue of unconscious bias. This issue – which might be summed up as ‘We judge women more harshly than men for the same things’ – doesn’t seem as popular as the usual headlines about what women are doing wrong.
This is an edited extract from Speaking Out: A 21st-Century Handbook for Women & Girls by Tara Moss, published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia and available in all good bookstores and online now for RRP$22.99.
Tara Moss is the author of 11 books, a journalist, speaker, doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, human rights advocate and advocate for the rights of women and children, and Patron of the Full Stop Foundation. Visit her at taramoss.com.