Will My Girly Voice Hold Me Back?

Here’s a demoralising piece of information for every ready-to-take-on-the-world female student reading this: You’re a girl, and you sound like a girl, so no one will ever take you seriously.

Get that? You have a feminine voice (how dare you!?) and will never succeed in your career. You’re too screechy and high-pitched, which means you’re less competent. Your naturally woman-like intonation is the barrier between you and the success you deserve.

Or, at least, this was suggested to Monica Hanna, a litigator from New York City, by firm partners who listened to her presentations. Twice in the space of two years Hanna was told that her voice was too ‘high’ in the partners’ feedback.

So, you may be wondering, what did Hanna do in the face of clearly misogynistic criticism? Did she ignore it? Refuse to let the comments affect her professional confidence? Maybe, even, file a complaint against the unjust remarks?

Answer to all of the above: Nope. Hanna chose to have vocal coaching to deepen her voice, in fact the same method of vocal training sought by transgender people, in order to be taken seriously by colleagues and better her career.

Hanna’s choice to deepen her voice has received a bit of a controversial reception. On the one hand, some think it was an anti-feminist move. Did she not believe her work could speak for itself on merit alone? Why did she accept, and not retaliate against, the misogyny? Others approve of her pro-active attitude to the criticism in order to improve her professional prospects. After all, as Tracy Moore put it, ‘a girl’s gotta eat’.

Reading about Hanna made me think about the way my own feminine voice is received. Does my lack of baritone and tendency to fall into an ‘uptalk’ pattern make me seem less competent and assertive? When I give an opinion in a seminar, do people pay less attention to me than they would a male student making the same point? If, after I graduate, I’m faced with a group job interview, will I be automatically at a disadvantage if competing against male applicants?

Young women feel it can be difficult to make their voices heard in the work place. Fran, a Nottingham student currently teaching English in France on her year abroad, told me about her experiences: ‘I definitely think people find it more socially acceptable or less rude to talk over a girl. I’ve really noticed it in the staff room at the school I’m working at this year.’

Of course, as students, we know a select group of people for whom making presentations and speaking to large audiences is a major part of their day job – lecturers. I’m curious as to whether female lecturers face professional disadvantages because of their voices and gender – do students view them as less authoritative in the lecture hall than their male colleagues? I’ve noticed that students are more likely to pack up their notebooks before a lecture has finished if it’s being taken by a woman rather than a man. Do we unknowingly find less power in a female voice?

To test this theory, I asked other Nottingham students whether they felt more inclined to listen to their male lecturers.

Jonny, a third year Biology student, said ‘I don’t listen to male lecturers more, but I do think my male lecturers are more authoritative than my female lecturers. I think that female lecturers make up for that through being more approachable and often maintain the attention of the students in different and more effective ways.’

Interesting! Although Jonny thinks female lecturers lack the authority of males, this doesn’t mean female professionals are at a disadvantage – women can assert themselves despite of their ‘weaker’ voices.

Robert, a third year History student, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about: ‘I wouldn’t say I listen any less to female lecturers in the slightest. From my experience both sexes can be engaging, or indeed boring and waffly. Currently this semester all my lecturers are female and they are very passionate about their subject which makes me more interested. The degree to which I take someone seriously is based on their knowledge and interest of the topic in question – for me the sex of that person does not come into it.’

Hm, maybe I’ve been a tad cynical about feminine voices and was overthinking about Hanna’s case. It seems as though female work can, rightly, be appreciated despite our ‘too high’ and ‘too screechy’ voices. Perhaps, Hanna’s critics should take a lesson or two from Nottingham students.

So, will my girly voice hold me back? Should I be paranoid about standing out in a group interview because my voice doesn’t have that staccato rhythm and assertive monotone? I don’t know – but who really cares? I want to be appreciated for what I achieve, not how I sound when doing it.





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