Recently, a major UK newspaper asked to interview me about my job as a voice coach. They sent over some potential questions they might ask, and all of them were about women. The questions included: ‘What can women do to make themselves sound more professional?’ and ‘Are there a lot of business women that hire voice coaches?’ When I did the interview, the journalist said the motivation for the piece was in response to a recent BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour episode that discussed how difficult it can be for women to find vocal authority.
This is a topic that is very close to our hearts. As both voice coaches and women, we are in constant search over how we can find our own voices in the social and cultural landscape in which we exist. As a result, female vocal authority has been my topic of research for both my Master’s thesis and in professional contexts. Lindsay and I even presented on this very topic for the Being Human Festival at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 2015.
We have avidly followed the growing media conversation about this subject, which is compulsively fixated on the topic of women’s voices and how they need to change them in order to be taken seriously. From Naomi Wolf’s article (one among many) telling women to stop using vocal fry, which is a habit of allowing a little creak into the voice that can come from either lack of breath support or pushing the pitch down, to women being told to stop talking like ‘valley girls’, which means ending their sentences on an upward pitch, making it sound like a question, to studies showing that both men and women prefer masculine (meaning low, deep) voices in their leaders. Selena Simmons-Duffin of NPR did an excellent segment on the growing phenomenon of criticizing women’s voices in 2014. In this segment, she amassed the six most common complaints about female voices: 1. their voices are too high 2. They sound like children 3. They don’t sound authoritative. 4. They’ve got vocal fry. 5. They end statements as questions. 6. Their voices are too low. Wait, what? Women’s voices are too high and too low? No wonder women are confused.
The current political landscape is adding fodder to this conversation. In the UK, the above-mentioned BBC Radio 4 interview played clips of Theresa May’s and Andrea Leadsom’s voices and had a voice coach compare them and discuss which one sounded more authoritative. They also played clips of Margaret Thatcher, who (in?)famously received vocal training to lower the tone of her voice to sound more authoritative. The voice coach on the program said Thatcher did sound more authoritative as a result of lowering her larynx, which respectfully we must say, we would never advise women to do. Lowering your larynx all the time, which causes you to speak in a lower pitch, would probably feel about as authentic to you as raising it all the time (which would cause you to speak in a higher pitch). If you are interested in sounding conventionally authoritative, I wrote an article about it on another blog which you can read here.
And in the US, while there are countless articles denouncing Donald Trump’s credibility based on his words and ideas, I have yet to come across an article that scrutinizes the tone of his voice (if you have come across one— please send it to me in the comments below!). Yes, there are many impressions of him, but that is not untypical of someone running for public office, especially in the US. Meanwhile, a quick google search of ‘Hillary Clinton Voice’ leads to dozens of articles about the “problems” with her voice, and why people hate it so much.
So, back to my (very prestigious) interview with this UK publication. Here are my answers to their questions.
What can women do to make themselves sound more professional?
I feel very passionate as a voice coach about reframing this question. The way this question is being asked implies that 50% of the population has a problem sounding professional. If half the population has that problem, we need to ask ourselves as a society what standard we are holding that population to. In my experience as a coach, my female clients feel they are not heard because they are expected to sound like men. And many of my clients, previous to receiving coaching, have tried to adapt to sound like men, to their disappointment, because it doesn’t feel authentic to them. Because they are not men!
So instead of asking this question, can we ask two different questions: 1. How can anyone and everyone find their authentic vocal authority? 2. What can we as a society do to create more room for more diverse types of voices, as opposed to holding everyone, both men and women, to an ancient, gendered standard of the masculine, low deep voice? (If you are interested in reading more about that, there are brilliant articles you can read here and here.)
I approach coaching my clients by asking the first question of myself with every client I meet: How can I help this person find their own authentic vocal authority? Some clients are interested in having that classically authoritative sound, some are not. I am very committed to helping them feel grounded and authentic in their vocal choices, rather than making them feel like there is one type of authoritative sound.
2. Are there a lot of business women that hire vocal coaches?
Yes, but there are also a lot of business men that hire vocal coaches, and in my experience, it’s for the exact same reasons. They feel they aren’t being heard. They want more gravitas, more credibility. So while it’s absolutely true that men and women face different obstacles in the work place, I still approach both with the same question: How can I help this person find their own authentic vocal authority? Men also have difficulty living up to society’s masculinized ideal of authority. In the end, they too have to find their own authenticity.
While this interview did indeed occur, the paper did not publish it. It could be because it didn’t end up fitting with their other features that week, but I do wonder if it’s also because I didn’t give them the answers that they wanted. I wonder if they wanted me to be yet another voice coach in the media pathologizing women’s voices, and making women feel like their voices are something they need to fix.
Well we won’t do that. As voice coaches, we at BeSpoke Communication firmly believe that everyone can benefit from voice training, including women. Not because we all need to adhere to one specific kind of sound in order to be heard, but because it can be empowering to learn how to use your voice as a tool. So women, there is nothing wrong with your voices. If you want voice training in order to better use what you’ve already got, then let’s do it!