Do we respond differently to the sound of a voice based on its gender? Do men's voices have more authority and are women's voices more friendly? These questions skim the surface of an overlooked aspect of gender discrimination -- bias that arises from how we judge a female voice, especially pitch.
Typically, gender bias against women is rooted in optics. We look at hair color, body shape, size, weight, height, physical attractiveness and make assumptions. Clothing, skirt length, and style of attire provide visual cues that fuel stereotypes and feed into gender expectations. Take away sight and we still jump to conclusions, but now the pitch of a woman's voice becomes the yardstick by which we measure her worth.
Picture the stereotypical "dumb blonde." How does she sound? Either we imagine her voice as high and squeaky, or soft and breathy like Marilyn Monroe. It's sexy, but it doesn't convey authority or increase trust.
To gain authority, women have long believed that it's better to pitch their voices lower. And experts have discovered that most women are following that dictum. Over the past 50 years, women's voices have dropped significantly. Although women's voices normally register a full octave higher than men's voices, today they're just 2/3rds of an octave higher.
The most prominent example of this vocal divide can be seen in the media where an enormous distinction exists between the types of products sold by female voices and those pitched by male voices. At first glance it might appear that women and men enjoy parity based on the number of voiceovers on TV commercials. Women's voices are commonplace in commercials that sell everyday household items such as dishwashing detergent, toilet bowl cleaners, diapers, paper towels. But commercials selling big ticket items such as cars and trucks are largely the domain of male voices.
That's because of the sexual politics surrounding how we perceive male and female voices. Writing for the UK website the New Humanist, Sally Feldman observes:
[There's] a basic difference between the way men and women tend to speak. Whereas men often breathe from their abdomen, women are more likely to constrict their voices to an upper range which allows less variety and less control. In a recent collection of essays, Well-Tuned Women, Kristin Linklater writes: “When a high voice connects with a strong impulse based, for instance, in anger or fear, it becomes shrill, strident, screechy, piercing, nasal, penetrating, sharp, squeaky or brassy and generally unpleasant to the point of causing major distress in the hearers.”Look beyond TV commercials and you'll see how effectively men have wielded the power of pitch in the gender wars. "Ever notice there are no female announcers on game shows?" asks veteran voice actor Lora Cain. None serve as announcers on TV talk shows, and very few do network promos or movie trailers -- two of the most prestigious and highly-coveted jobs in the voiceover industry.
Men, on the other hand, with their deeper voices and richer tones, find it easier to convey authority and control. It’s partly physiological. Men’s voices are lower than women’s because they have a larger larynx, developed in the Adam’s apple at puberty, and longer, thicker vocal folds....
Anne Karpf [author of The Human Voice] argues that men have come to assert power through their deep voices and resonant tones to such an extent that “pitch has become a weapon in the gender wars."
According to Cain, statistics bear this out. Men do 80% of the voice work while women accounting for only 20%.
Why does gender discrimination exist in a field where it's not how you look but how you sound? Cain feels it's because those positions of clout that determine whether a voice will be male or female -- namely, writers and directors -- are held primarily by men. "The key is more women writers and women directors," she observed in a recent phone interview. "If there were more women writers, there'd be more of a tendency to say, 'Let's consider a woman for this.'"