Go Deep: Vocal Pitch and Electability

Back in August 2011, I did an interview with Eliza Gray, a reporter for The New Republic, who’d just written a terrific feature on being transgendered in America. The part of the story that caught my eye, in particular, was a section on speech therapy; men transitioning into women, it turns out, often seek the help of a speech therapist to learn how to speak in a more feminine way. This involves learning to speak in a higher pitch, as well as making other changes to the intonation and resonance of their voices.

As I spoke with Eliza, though, a question occurred to me: Would there be a market for this kind of speech therapy even for people who weren’t transitioning between genders? I imagined that, in some fields at least, it could be a liability to be a business professional with a voice that sounds too “feminine.” So I asked Eliza about this. Here’s that portion of the interview:

EA: Could you see people who are not transitioning going through similar speech therapy? I’m imagining, say, a woman in the corporate world who thinks that perhaps making her speech less “feminine” will help her advance.

EG: I know, in the context of the transgender world, some male-to-female transgender people have complained that in corporate settings, they tend to want their voices to go lower. They find themselves counteracting their therapy a little bit to keep their voices low and more gender neutral. A lot of people like the idea of having a more feminized voice, but then when it comes to the working world, they find that people don’t respond to them as well if their voice is too high.

This exchange came rushing back to me this week when I saw a new study, published in this month’s issue of PLoS One, that sheds new light on how the pitch of our voices can affect the way we are perceived. 

The researchers, from Duke University and the University of Miami, begin by reviewing what we already know–that both men and women prefer their leaders, whether they’re male or female, to have lower-pitched voices. Studies show that we’re more likely to view leader with low-pitched voices as strong, trustworthy, and competent.

But, the scientists point out, these studies asked subjects about what they prefer in general “leadership” positions, rather than about holders of specific offices. Would these same biases hold, they wondered, when considering candidates for jobs that were stereotypically “female”?

The new study focuses on two leadership positions that are usually held by women: School Board Member and Parent Teacher Organization President. “In line with previous work on gender roles and leadership,” the scientists write, “both positions are concerned with the welfare of children. Also, in the United States, where our study was conducted, women are overrepresented in both positions.”

The researchers recorded 10 men and 10 women saying the phrase, “I urge you to vote for me this November,” and then manipulated the pitch of each recording, creating a higher-pitched and lower-pitched version of each speaker’s message. Then they played these paired recordings back to 35 men and 36 women and asked each participant: ‘‘If they were running against each other in a School Board election, which voice would you vote for?’’ (They repeated the procedure with a different set of subjects, asking about a hypothetical Parent Teacher Organization election.)

Despite the fact that the scientists were asking about stereotypically female leadership roles, men still preferred both male and female candidates with lower pitched voices. Women also preferred their female candidates to have lower pitched voices. (They showed no preference in voice pitch among the male candidates.)

Here’s what the researchers had to say about their findings:

While feminine qualities are generally perceived to be desirable in individuals holding feminine leadership roles, we find that this is not the case for voice pitch. Importantly, despite work showing that listener response to voice pitch can be influenced by social context , our results suggest that the influence of voice pitch on perceptions of leadership capacity can be consistent across different types of leadership roles.

Why are men and women with masculinized voices preferred as leaders? In the case of women’s voices, this bias could be a consequence of lower-pitched female voices being perceived as more competent, stronger, and more trustworthy. That is, these traits are perceived as positive in the context of leadership and could be the mechanism that leads us to prefer female leaders with lower voices. Additionally, the pitch of the female voice declines over the lifespan. Consequently, selection of female leaders with lower-pitched voices can result in the selection of women who are older, and perhaps more experienced at leading others. Stated differently, men and women may be biased to select older women as leaders, regardless of the type of position in question. In the case of men’s voices, men with lower-pitched voices are larger, stronger, and more aggressive. Again these traits are perceived as positive in the context of leadership, leading us to prefer male leaders with lower voices.

Like all PLoS papers, this one is open access, so you can check out the full text here.

ResearchBlogging.org Reference: Anderson, R., & Klofstad, C. (2012). Preference for Leaders with Masculine Voices Holds in the Case of Feminine Leadership Roles PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051216

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