A female-sounding voice? Whose problem is that?

Online reaction suggests NPR is really hearing it today over its story last evening on All Things Considered about women’s voices.

It started with this line:

Just having a feminine voice means you’re probably not as capable at your job.

Or at least that’s what some studies suggest, NPR said.

It documented the story of several women — including transgender men — who are finding their female voices are hurting them at work.

The solution, the story said, was to sound more like men.

  1. Listen NPR: Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?

    October 14, 2014

Men often speak in more of monotone, with a percussive, staccato rhythm, explains Annette Masson, a voice coach at the University of Michigan who works with actors, singers and sometimes other professionals, like Hanna. Feminine speech patterns — more musical, with more pitch variation — reflect the different way women connect with other people, she says.

Women tend to be more collaborative communicators than men, Masson says. We say “we” more than we say “I.” Even voice patterns that women are criticized for — like uptalk (going up in pitch at the end of every sentence? like you’re asking a question?) — demonstrate a collaborative style of conversation.

According to Masson, uptalk asks the listener, “Are you still with me? Are you paying attention here?” It’s a way to check in and keep the listener engaged.

But the pattern can come across as a request for permission to speak — evidence of insecurity. Hanna wanted and needed to command attention in the courtroom. To learn how, she decided to work with a speech-language pathologist, Christie Block.

“I want to be taken more seriously,” a woman in the story said. And who can blame her. But the fact she had to be more like a man is troubling, somewhat a recognition that the attitudes of men can’t be changed.

The story found favor with several of the women who work at NPR.

In the story’s comment section, women shared their stories.

Fascinating! I am already on the mental-offensive to stop incessantly saying “sorry” and uptalking at work, but hadn’t thought about how simply having a female voice pattern could be holding me back in my career. I have noticed, however, that during brainstorming sessions with my group of mid-level managers, where I am the only woman, I am literally less likely to be heard. If me and another coworker start talking at the same time, 90% of the time the coworker will be the one who gets to finish his thought first. It’s exhausting trying to get my thoughts across in a big meeting unless I am given the floor.

My experience is that “uptalk” is far worse than a high voice. It was made the subject of ridicule in “Valley Girls” and hasn’t lost that stupid chick reputation. It is often interpreted as shallowness no matter what is being discussed. You could discuss brain surgery in “uptalk” and still come off as lacking substance.

I am a female engineer for over 30 years, and was blessed with a mellow voice. The only complaint I get is that people are surprised at how direct I am, which shouldn’t be a complaint, but that’s the gender bias I get. I actually speak and engage in the same way and with the same confidence as men but with a mellow female voice. The Diane Sawyer example is a good one. Some people don’t know what to do with that. Their issue seems to be that there is no issue, but they were expecting one and are caught off guard by being on equal footing. I just keep going and figure it’s their issue to figure out.

Others took issue with some individual voices on NPR. All of them women’s.

  • Gary F

    Maybe I’m just getting old and are male, but the rising intonation of younger women’s voices drives me nuts and makes me not take them as seriously.


    • Gary F


    • Rachel Welsch

      I must be too young then, because it drives me nuts when older people use all capitals when they type. It’s just like you’re yelling at everyone.

  • davehoug

    Uhhhh wouldn’t sounding English (as in London) also make one sound smarter? Southern redneck sounding voice patterns won’t be effective everywhere. Brash New York city “in your face” voice patterns are very effective in New York, perhaps not so much in Wyoming. I am sure all can think of other voice patterns that are iconic.

    That said, my question is: After the first few face-to-face meetings does a voice pattern still matter or has the content of the speech taken over as the primary……assumptions……when John or Mary speak out?????

  • Veronica

    The only complaining I’ve ever heard from friends about the DJs on The Current were about the voices of women.