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What Do We Hear When Women Speak?

Senator Kamala Harris and Senator Elizabeth Warren in the October Democratic presidential debate.

Margaret Thatcher famously trained to...

Margaret Thatcher famously trained to deepen her voice in an attempt to give herself more authority. Claims of being too “shrill” — a word that, according to a 2016 linguistic analysis[1], was used twice as often to refer to women than men in media articles during that era — dogged Hillary Clinton in both of her campaigns for the presidency, despite one analysis showing that her voice was average in pitch and loudness for her age and gender[2].

Last year, when Vicki Sparks, a sports journalist, became the first woman to announce a men’s World Cup match live on British television, she was criticized for being too “high pitched[3]” by a former player who noted that he simply preferred “a male voice when watching football.”

“I don’t have a problem with the idea that your voice is important if you’re a broadcaster or a politician. It’s part of the reason I have this job,” said Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the host of “Weekend Edition Sunday” on NPR. “My problem is when people come up and say, ‘I don’t want to hear you, because your voice annoys me.’ It automatically disqualifies a whole swath of people. Because what are they comparing you to? They’re comparing you to a white man.”

(In a recent article, NPR’s public editor noted that when it comes to listener complaints about its newscasters’ voices, the “vast majority” are directed at women and reporters of color[4].)

In a course called “Sounding American,” at the University of California at Berkeley, Tom McEnaney, a professor of comparative literature and Portuguese and Spanish, teaches that there is in fact a sound that people associate with authority in this country — and, while it is constantly evolving, it has its roots in many things, one of which is early broadcast technology. Dating back to the phonograph, he said, engineers had created a device that was designed for the male voice — newscasters, presidents, public figures — to the extent that if a woman spoke into it, her voice would sound distorted, thin or scrambled.

“The mic wouldn’t pick up certain ranges of voice,” Professor McEnaney said. “If a woman wanted to speak and get her voice recorded, she had to produce more volume and more energy to make the same marks. She could try to speak lower, or she could shout. But she’d have to change her voice.”

Over time, that technology improved — but he thinks the deep-rooted association between female voices and sonic distortion leads to the seemingly strong (albeit frequently subconscious) reaction that many people have to the higher pitch.

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