A couple of weeks ago Theresa May’s conservative party speech delighted Corbynistas and Blairites alike, as both mainstream and social media revelled gleefully in the disaster of it all. There were the falling letters, the prank P45, the unapplauding Boris Johnson, etc. etc. But the focal point of the disaster was May’s inability to speak, as she coughed and spluttered throughout the speech.
While May’s cabinet put her coughocalypse down to the flu, it reminded me of an issue that’s played on my mind since she became Prime Minister. Perhaps one of the reasons May had so much trouble during her speech, is that she has adopted an uncannily low register, an intonation that seems to deepen at every utterance of a point of importance? Perhaps given the difficult circumstances, she simply couldn’t keep this up?
While I can’t say for sure that May has weekly sessions with a vocal coach, training her in the art of the authoritative baritone, it wouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, it’s well-known that Margaret Thatcher had vocal training, and the development of her signature speaking style has been much analysed.
So? What is there to say about that? It’s not news, after all, that politicians polish up their acts to appear more likeable. The problem, however, is in the fact that the only two female PMs in British history, have both seemingly made an effort to sound distinctly more masculine. Don’t get me wrong, out of all the criticisms that I might have for these women, this is not one of them. Because, frankly, who can blame them?
a testament to the double-standards that women in politics face
Leadership has traditionally been perceived a masculine role and it appears that we associate male voices with power. Research has found that both men and women perceive lower-pitched voices to be more competent. One study shows that verbal communication was ranked as the skill of most importance in a leader, and both male and female respondents rated anonymous male voices as more adept at this. Respondents were more willing to work for male leaders. Even if they had rated female leaders’ highly, they found them lacking in interpersonal skills, and there was consensus among respondents in evaluating them as unlikeable.
Women in positions of power seem to have the odds stacked up against them. Popular discourse dictates that any mannerisms that appear traditionally feminine render a speaker decidedly trivial, and if she doesn’t attempt to conceal her higher-pitched female voice, she is branded as, God forbid, shrill. Bossy. Nasty. Robotic. A bitch.
Criticism of this type was thrown at Hillary Clinton from both the left and the right during her presidential campaign. The world-baffling outcome of the US elections is surely a testament to the double-standards that women in politics face. While the world expected something akin to the feminine mystique from First Lady Hillary, a more decisive and authoritative voice was required from candidate Hillary. But here is where the infuriating hypocrisy lies – as a woman discussing truly important issues, in a serious and unwavering tone, relentless scorn was blasted at the politician for her “hysterical,” “unpresidential” manner.
And this hatred for the “annoying” way women speak doesn’t stop at politics. In a brilliant segment from This American Life, host Ira Glass bewilderedly relays the vicious criticism female producers of the show receive due to their over-use of vocal fry. A few years back, this vocal feature (think of Britney singing “Oh baby, baby” and you’ll get the gist) was the new target of a barely suppressed moral panic. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that vocal fry was associated with women or something. Oh wait…
women intuitively find themselves in a juggling act
Glass admits that he’s “guilty” of vocal fry too, as are many of his male colleagues. Yet not one complaint has been targeted at them, while women in the industry have resorted to deliciously sassy ways of fighting back against their many haters.
It seems women simply cannot win, and while everyone point-blank refuses to listen, the young female voices of tomorrow have heard the hypocrisy. Politics geek Małgorzata Sarzyńska notes “If you have a high-pitched voice they don’t take you seriously, if you have a low voice they question your femininity.”
And so, women intuitively find themselves in a juggling act. “Working as a waitress I’ve realised I tend to have a higher voice when interacting with customers. Whereas when I’m talking to my bosses about managerial things I’ve noticed my voice goes lower, as I’m trying to be taken more seriously” observes Aisheshek Magauina, a young writer focusing on women’s issues.
We often talk about how to promote “women’s voices” in the metaphorical sense. Yet how can we possibly achieve the much needed diversity of ideas and opinions in our public spaces when it seems that society literally despises the way women sound? An accidental email signature swap between male and female co-workers made the news not long ago, and showed that the voice of a woman is valued less even in written form. Because at the heart of it it’s not really about audible difference, but perceived difference. Issue is taken not with what is being said, or even inherently with how it’s being said. The perceived problem is in who is doing the talking. And it sounds like we might just need to get over it.
Image: EU2017EE, Flickr.