Stop Policing Women's Voices

If you can't get past a woman's voice to listen to her words, that's on you.

20/05/2016 9:06 AM AEST | Updated 20/05/2016 9:06 AM AEST
Alberto Ruggieri via Getty Images
From your mouth to someone's (silent) ears.

On Wednesday, Amanda Terkel, managing editor for politics here at The Huffington Post, called a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Terkel was checking a reference on a potential intern's resume. But what should have been a routine call instead became an opportunity for the professor, who was male, to offer unsolicited commentary on Terkel's voice -- and to make some striking assumptions about her professional competence.

Afterward, she tweeted about the exchange:

"I was completely shocked," Terkel told me via online chat. "Reference calls are usually quick, easy and pleasant. I didn't expect my age, the sound of my voice and my writing skills to be under the microscope."

To Terkel, this criticism felt different than the "run-of-the-mill rude remarks" she had received about her voice in the past, primarily in the context of TV appearances. "You always get comments about your appearance, etc. when you go on TV," Terkel said.

The Medill professor has since apologized, but Terkel's tweets point to a much larger issue. The truth is, women regularly hear unsolicited opinions about their voices. Whereas men's voices are generally considered authoritative, perfectly adequate vehicles for communication, women's voices are often treated as works in progress, open to improvement. Add a lower tone here, subtract a "sorry" or a "like" or an "I think" there, and voila, your once "shrill, young, inexperienced" speech patterns will be just manly enough to grant you some authority!

At every turn, society demands that women adjust their vocal patterns to fit a standard shaped by men. But even the best of vocal coaches and self-help columns urging women not to apologize for their thoughts in meetings won't take away the stigma that comes with existing as a human woman with a voice. (Men who have "effeminate"-sounding voices also tend to face critique, yet another sign that sexism doesn't just hurt women.)

This is an issue I feel personally invested in -- and have written about before with my colleague Claire Fallon, with whom I also host a podcast. As women who put our voices out there for consumption and critique on a weekly basis, we have come to view criticism of our voices as part of the deal. We have been told we sound "very whiny," "overly sensitive," "annoying" and "semi-seductive." We've been told we sound like "empty-headed valley girls" and "sorority girls with zero insight." We recently discovered an entire Reddit thread that dissects our vocal fry and uptalk. 

Research has shown that though both men and women employ female-coded speech patterns -- like glottal fry and uptalk -- only women are perceived negatively for it. This is incredibly telling.

I asked women in the HuffPost newsroom and on Twitter whether they had ever received unsolicited criticism about their voices. Many responded saying they had, from both men and other women. 

Women with lower voices get criticized for not sounding feminine enough.

On the other hand, women with higher-pitched voices are told they can't be taken seriously.

Women's voices also open the door for people to assume things about their bodies...

...and their levels of professionalism...

...and whether they're even worth listening to at all.

In the working world, these judgments can be particularly damaging. If speech patterns and pitches associated with women are considered "annoying" and "shrill," or indicative of a lack of experience or authority, that's one more roadblock women will face while trying to cultivate professional respect. 

As Marybeth Seitz-Brown wrote at Slate in December 2014, "Rather than telling women to talk like men or shut up -- we can encourage each other to celebrate the different rises and falls, the creaks and quakes that make up our voices."

Ultimately, if you can't move past a woman's voice to listen to her words, that's on you. What she says should always be more important than the pitch at which she says it. 

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