You have accessThe ASHA Leader ArchiveFeature1 Feb 2019

The Unheard Female Voice

Women are more likely to be talked over and unheeded. But SLPs can help them speak up and be heard.

    In the summer of 2017, a panel of notable cosmologists and physicists convened at John Jay College in New York to discuss some of the biggest questions in cosmology. About an hour into the event, moderator Jim Holt asked the only woman on the panel, UC Davis professor Veronika Hubeny, about her research into string theory and quantum gravity. Hubeny had barely begun to answer the question when Holt spoke over her, essentially explaining the physicist’s own theories to her. At one point in the exchange, a female audience member became so frustrated that she shouted, “Let her speak, please!” leading the crowd to applaud.

    From corporate America to the upper echelons of government, women are regularly interrupted, talked over, misheard or misperceived when they speak, research indicates (see sources). The reasons for these disruptions are varied, and include pitch and other vocal characteristics, word choice, and inherent social and cultural biases.

    Women can address at least some of the issues that make it harder for them to be heard with strategies like using more assertive language and adjusting the tone and intensity of their voice—something speech-language pathologists can help them with if these women seek elective voice services. (It should be noted, however, that this would not be voice “treatment” for a physiological problem.) Elective voice services might include teaching women to slow down, enunciate their words, and use relaxation and breathing techniques.

    But SLPs also note that the effort of trying to be heard shouldn’t fall solely on women—after all, there is nothing inherently “wrong” with their voices. Much of the burden falls on listeners of both genders to be more aware of their own responses when engaging in conversations with women.

    Male and female voices

    In general, women speak at a higher pitch—about an octave higher than men. An adult woman’s average range is from 165 to 255 Hz, while a man’s is 85 to 155 Hz (see sources). Men’s voices are generally deeper because the surge of testosterone released during puberty causes their vocal cords to elongate and thicken. Like the strings of a cello, thicker, longer vocal cords produce a deeper sound.

    Lower-pitched voices give the impression of being louder, because they have more resonance. “With women’s voices being higher-pitched, they don’t carry as far,” says Amee Shah, associate professor and director of the Cross-Cultural Speech, Language, and Acoustics Lab in the Stockton University School of Health Sciences. Not only can these characteristics make women’s voices harder to hear, says Shah, but when women try to emphasize a point, they sometimes raise their pitch even more, which can sound harsh or jarring.

    In this vein, a 2012 study published in PLoS ONE found that both men and women prefer male and female leaders who have lower-pitched voices across a variety of fields, from more stereotypically masculine fields to more stereotypically feminine ones.

    Women also have a larger gap at the back of their vocal cords, which allows more air to pass through. This gives women’s voices more of a “breathy” quality than men’s voices (see sources). The combination of higher pitch and breathiness can make women’s voices more challenging to hear, especially for older adults with age-related hearing loss, in which high-frequency sounds diminish first.

    Woman, interrupted

    Whether due to voice issues or for other reasons, women are interrupted significantly more often than men, according to more than four decades’ worth of research. In 1975, University of California sociologists Don Zimmerman and Candace West recorded 31 conversations in public places like coffee shops and drug stores. In the male-female conversations, the researchers noted 48 total interruptions. Men perpetrated all but two of them.

    A more recent study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology engaged 40 participants—20 male and 20 female—in three-minute conversations. During the discourse, women interrupted men just once, on average. Yet men interrupted women 2.6 times. Women also interrupted each other—at a rate of 2.9 times per conversation.

    Voice pitch may have something to do with how much men and women get heard: Some research in the psychology literature suggests people find men and women with lower voices to be more authoritative and dominant. This could explain why—at least according to one Journal of Voice study—women’s voices appear to have lowered over time, along with evolutions in their social roles. Famously, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher worked with a voice coach on lowering her pitch, in an effort to sound more authoritative.

    Of course, interruptions during conversations may be due to factors other than gender, says study author Adrienne Hancock, an associate professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at The George Washington University. For example, female-to-female interruptions may simply imply a sense of familiarity. “Women get to that informal level of conversation more quickly than men do,” she says.

    Yet the multitude of male-to-female interruptions implies a sense of dominance, particularly since men have traditionally held the balance of power throughout history, says Tonja Jacobi, a professor of law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Even when women reach the pinnacle of their profession, such as earning a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, they remain vulnerable to interruptions.

    When Jacobi and her colleague Dylan Schweers did a study analyzing Supreme Court oral arguments, they discovered that female justices were interrupted three times more often than their male counterparts, regardless of their seniority. The female justices were also interrupted by lawyers—their juniors—more often than were men. “I think it’s part of a whole phenomenon where women’s voices are subordinate to men’s,” Jacobi says.

    She found that female Supreme Court justices gradually adapted their speech, using fewer hedging or prefacing phrases like, “Can I ask,” or “Excuse me,” in an effort to avoid being interrupted. “I think what’s going on there is the women are learning to talk like men, so as to be interrupted less,” Jacobi says.

    Striking the right tone

    Sometimes women may be especially likely to be disregarded or talked over because of a particular voice characteristic—vocal fry, for example, or a high or gentle voice. “Often, the higher-pitched or softer voices aren’t heard, especially in a noisy environment,” says SLP Laura Purcell Verdun, a Washington, D.C.-based communication coach at Voicetrainer, LLC. In many cases, women may not be aware of the issue.

    A physical problem such as vocal nodules or polyps can be responsible for the sound. “We have to distinguish whether it’s a medical condition versus a behavioral style,” Shah says.

    If it’s a physical problem, a referral to an ENT is in order, Shah says. However, if a woman is concerned about voice characteristics such as high pitch, quality of tone, or vocal fry, she can elect to try vocal resonant therapy to help modulate them. SLPs can implement a number of strategies with such clients.

    Breathiness and high pitch

    The quality of a woman’s voice is largely a product of the speed at which her vocal folds vibrate, and how tightly they close. A faster vibration leads to a higher pitch. Failure of the vocal folds to close fully leads to a breathy sound.

    A higher-pitched voice sounds more youthful, which can be problematic among female professionals, according to Jay Miller, a voice and speech coach based in Toronto. “When they sound too young, then they don’t project an image of credibility,” Miller says. “People assume they’re inexperienced.” Researchers have found that people associate youthfulness with less dominance in women, but not in men.

    But simply trying to lower the pitch of your voice can be counterproductive—and even potentially harmful. “I don’t think lowering pitch is a healthy or helpful practice, because it’s not authentic or honest, and because it’s difficult to sustain and project,” says Seattle-based SLP Sandy Hirsch.

    Instead of trying to lower her clients’ pitch, Hirsch helps them achieve a richer tone by encouraging them to do things like speak more slowly and round out their vowels (however, changes are unique to each person’s needs).

    Miller uses relaxation and breathing techniques with female clients to help them achieve deeper resonance. Relaxation eases the physical tension that can make the voice sound smaller, higher and shallower, he says. “The human voice is a wind instrument,” Miller says. “The quality of your voice is always going to reflect the quality of your breath. If the breath going in is deep and full and relaxed, your voice is going to be deep and full and relaxed.”

    Quiet voice

    Some women aren’t heard because they speak too softly. Yet when they try to give their voice more power, they can be accused of sounding “shrill”, as Hillary Clinton often was during the 2016 presidential campaign.

    “When Hillary Clinton tried to inspire or rouse people, she [often] did it by raising her voice … from the throat up,” Miller says. A better strategy is to amplify your voice with resonance, fullness and richness, rather than with force, he notes.

    The right breathing technique is essential for projection, too, as research on voice effectiveness in singing has shown. “By using lower diaphragmatic breathing—breathing deep from their belly—they’re not using their vocal folds to yell across the room,” Shah says.

    Hirsch trains her clients in forward-focused resonance voice therapy, in which they feel the vibration on their lips as a buzzing sensation as they hum in a warm-up exercise, and then learn to sense resonance forward in connected speech. “That takes the weight off the vocal folds so they’re able to project with as rich of a resonance as possible,” she says.

    Upspeak

    This term refers to turned-up intonation at the end of sentences that can make people sound as if they’re asking questions rather than making statements. It’s a common feature of speech among Australians and Canadians, as well as some teenagers and young women in America. Men use this vocal inflection, too, although it’s more common among women. Inflecting each sentence upward conveys uncertainty, Miller says.

    Putting an end to upspeak takes awareness, he adds, which starts with recording a client’s voice and having them listen to the way they end each sentence. Reading aloud from a book or magazine allows them to focus on their patterns of speech. Once they become aware of the pattern, they can start to correct it.

    Vocal fry

    This is the intermittently creaky low voice that’s become synonymous with the Kardashians and tends to be a point of contention. It’s been referred to alternately as a “debilitating speaking disorder” inflicted on us by pop culture, or as simply a “style” of speaking that’s only criticized in an attempt at “policing women’s language”.

    Vocal fry is not the singular domain of women—some men also speak with vocal fry—but it’s associated more with women, especially young women.

    Vocal fry is also not a new phenomenon, but it has garnered more attention lately because of its use among certain celebrities like the Kardashians, says Verdun.

    Vocal fry—or glottal fry, as it’s alternately called—is the result of insufficient airflow through the vocal folds. The lack of air prevents the folds from vibrating fully. As a result, the voice becomes compressed, giving it a buzzy, sizzling or fried quality.

    Again, this is where recording a client’s voice and making them more aware of the behavior can help. Breath-support exercises using simple phrases or two-word combinations (such as “move mom” or “no news”) can help direct more air through the vocal cords during speech, Verdun says.

    All of these elements, and more, go into vocal training. Hirsch also practices exercises with her clients, like having them speak while they play catch or walk around, to work on breath support. Or, she has them place one hand on the podium or desk to anchor their upper body so they can fully expand their ribs when they breathe.

    Vocal training is a gradual process that can take several sessions over a period of months, says SLP Wendy LeBorgne, voice pathologist and clinical director of the Professional Voice Center of Greater Cincinnati. LeBornge’s TED Talk on vocal branding includes a description of how the constitution of the voice can be reshaped through work on vocal intensity, inflection/intonation, rate of speech, frequency (pitch) and quality. LeBorgne says her clients begin to notice changes in their voices within about four weeks of implementing daily modifications.

    The more time women put into practicing the exercises both at home and at work on a daily basis, the greater the improvement they’ll see. Once they’ve developed new habits, clients should be able to go into maintenance mode and scale back on the number of exercises they do at home.

    LeBorgne adds that it’s important for any vocal alterations clients make to be authentic to them. “Even though we can change lots of features of the voice, if it’s not an authentic voice, the listener is likely to pick up on the authenticity—that you’re faking it.”

    Changing the conversation

    There’s yet another option for women who are often talked over in conversations or business meetings: They can experiment with using more assertive language. “When you use tentative language, then you are more prone to be interrupted,” Hancock says. She cites as an example the difference between the statements, “We’re going to dinner here,” and, “I was thinking of going to dinner here.” The latter phrase conveys a sense of uncertainty.

    Asking for permission or apologizing is also problematic, says Verdun. “If you don’t believe what you’re saying, and it doesn’t come across that way, nobody else is going to believe it, either.” Using declarative and matter-of-fact language is a more effective way for women to get their point across.

    When women are interrupted, Hancock recommends stepping in with assertive declarations like, “I’m not finished yet.” Women can also try using fewer fillers (um, but, so) and pauses, says Hancock, “because that’s often when interruptions happen.”

    Tools for the listener

    Part of the responsibility for making women’s voices heard also lies with the listener. Changing perceptions requires everyone to pay greater attention to the issue. Men and women need to be more self-aware about interrupting women, and make an effort to let any speaker finish before they respond. “We’re talking about a society-wide change, and that does take everybody making a small amount of effort,” Jacobi says.

    Regardless of the setting, listeners can—and should—make more of an effort at inclusive conversation. “As the listener, you want to make sure that everyone in the conversation feels included, whether that’s through eye contact or explicitly asking for their opinion if someone hasn’t had an opportunity to talk,” Hancock says.

    Sources

    • Anderson, R. C., & Klofstad, C. A. (2012). Preference for leaders with masculine voices holds in the case of feminine leadership roles.PLoS ONE, 7(12), e51216.
    • Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., Ho, S., & Henrich, J. (2016). Listen, follow me: Dynamic vocal signals of dominance predict emergent social rank in humans.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(5), 536–547.
    • Hancock, A. B., & Rubin, B. A. (2015). Influence of communication partner’s gender on language.Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 34(1), 46–64.
    • Jacobi, T., & Dylan, S. (2017). Justice, interrupted: The effect of gender, ideology, and seniority at Supreme Court oral arguments.”.Virginia Law Review, 103, 1379.
    • Leongómez, J. D., Mileva, V. R., Little, A. C., & Roberts, S. C. (2017). Perceived differences in social status between speaker and listener affect the speaker’s vocal characteristics.PLoS ONE, 12(6), e0179407.
    • Mendoza, E., Valencia, N., Muñoz, J., & Trujillo, H. (1996). Differences in voice quality between men and women: Use of the long-term average spectrum (LTAS).Journal of Voice, 10(1), 59–66.
    • Pemberton, C., McCormack, P., & Russell, A. (1998). Have women’s voices lowered across time? A cross sectional study of Australian women’s voices.Journal of Voice, 12(2), 208–213.
    • Thorpe, W., Cala, S. J., Chapman, J., & Davis, P. J. (2001). Patterns of breath support in projection of the singing voice.Journal of Voice, 15(1), 86–104.
    • Zimmerman, D. H., & West, C. (1975). Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation.In B. Thorne & N. Henley (Eds.), Language and sex: Difference and dominance, (105–129). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

    Author Notes

    Stephanie Watson is a health writer/editor based in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.

    Additional Resources