Voiceover professional Lora Cain is one of just a handful of women competing at the upper levels of this male dominated field, and she's acutely aware of how the deck is stacked against female announcers and women voice actors. "There's this belief that women don't sound good in certain situations or that women don't like to listen to women. Where's the logic in that?" she argues. "Women talk to each other, and women make 80% of the buying decisions in this country. But when a woman wants advice on what to buy, she's not as likely to ask her male partner as she is a female friend...or even another woman standing in line at the bathroom. That's just what women do. So of course we listen to other women. We seek out each others' opinions. We are our greatest resource. I'm hoping that we can change that belief little by little."
Cain credits changing opinions in the industry as opening doors for women. "What's popular now is the 'real person' sound. It's created new opportunities and that's really wonderful. But women are still shut out of certain jobs where there's an expectation that you need to have a certain weight behind your voice. Some say that women don't have that, but that's not true."
She cites Randy Thomas as a woman with vocal "weight." Described as the most recognized female voice in America, Thomas is best known as the voice of the TV show Entertainment Tonight and the Hooked on Phonics commercials.
Thomas shattered the voiceover glass ceiling in 1993 when she became the first female announcer of the Academy Awards. Since then, she's done the Oscars at least seven times as well as the Miss America Pageant and the Democratic National Convention. She's the first announcer -- male or female -- to hit the trifecta of announcing the Big Three Awards -- the Oscars, the Tonys and the primetime Emmys -- in a single year.
Thomas has broken out of the pack of female voice talent due to "that authoritative voice," as Cain describes it. "You hear it and you believe her."
This authority and forcefulness is ultimately the biggest hurdle facing women in the voiceover industry -- and in business as well. Listeners, like clients and co-workers, are more willing to place their trust in the voice that sounds confident and assured.
A March 2010 AdweekMedia/Harris Poll bears out these findings. Researchers asked participants to listen to male and female voiceovers in commercials and judge them based on various criteria. When asked who sounded "more forceful," 48% chose the male voiceover while only 2% chose the female. When asked who sounded "more soothing," respondents overwhelmingly chose the female voiceover -- 48% vs. only 8% for the male. Both genders were regarded as equally "persuasive" with 18% choosing the male voiceover vs. 19% choosing the female.
Yet when it comes to major purchases, authority seems to trump soothing or persuasive. When asked which voiceover would be "more likely to sell" them on buying a car or a computer, respondents chose the male voice 3-4 times more often than the female; only 7% chose the female voice in either situation. In comparison 28% of respondents felt the male voiceover was more likely to sell them a car, and 23% felt they were more likely to buy a computer based on the male voice.
The problem is that we "hear" gender first and form assumptions about the speaker even before we have a chance to assess timbre, pitch, speed, clarity, and other vocal qualities that might establish authority or trust. Unfortunately, "hearing" gender isn't all that different from seeing gender when we discriminate based on sex alone and assign characteristics to physical traits often arbitrarily, stereotypically, and unfairly.
Like Thomas, Cain has come up against the structural bias inherent in an industry where voices are judged by how well they "sell." In recent weeks she's been taking a crack at another glass ceiling -- announcing TV game shows -- as the only woman among half a dozen candidates vying to announce the popular syndicated show Wheel of Fortune. When the show's longtime male announcer passed away in November 2010, Caine pushed for the producer to consider a woman.
Although there are no female announcers on any games shows currently in production, Cain is optimistic, noting, "We go through these cycles -- in the 80s and 90s women could be heard as announcers on game shows although they were mostly cable channels." When she pointed out to Wheel of Fortuneexecutive producer Harry Friedman that there were no other women announcers on TV game shows today, he was willing to give her a shot.
Although the person behind the voice usually remains invisible, Cain's putting her thoughts forward -- along with her voice -- to make audiences aware that women are capable of doing the same quality work as men, just as they do in every other career field.
"I'm calling attention to this," Cain explains, "because we need to recognize when women cross these barriers. At the same time, however, it would be nice to have viewers listen to someone like Randy Thomas and think, 'Oh, she sounds great' instead of focusing solely on the fact that, 'Oh, that's a woman.'"
Camber, Rebecca. "Why women who want to get ahead get a husky voice." DailyMail.co.uk. 25 June 2006.
Dolliver, Mark. "How People React to Male vs. Female Voiceovers." Adweek.com. 8 March 2010.
Feldman, Sally. "Speak up." NewHumanist.org.uk. September/October 2008.
Hendrickson, Paula. "Choice Voice." EMMY Magazine at RandyThomasVO.com. April 2009.