What’s Actually Holding You Back In The Office (Hint: It’s Not Your Feminine Voice)

A new study finds that women in the workplace have yet another double standard to contend with in their efforts to be considered as hirable — as competent, educated, and trustworthy — as men. This time, it’s our voices that are undermining our credibility and screwing us out of jobs, raises, and promotions (must be a nice break for our clothes, our bodies, our marital statuses, our maternal statuses, and our management styles). This study focused on “vocal fry,” the verbal habit that many people associate with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian:

In the study, young people were recorded saying “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity” twice — once in a normal tone, once in vocal fry. Then, 800 study participants listened to the recordings and were asked which voice sounded more educated, competent, trustworthy, attractive, and worthy of hiring. Over 80 percent of the time, and in every category, participants preferred the normal voice — and they tended to rate women who had it lower than men who did.

I associate vocal fry with Lake Bell, who wrote, directed, and starred in a movie about women’s voices, in which vocal fry and other feminine vocal habits play a major role. In A World, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is about a woman trying to compete in the male-dominated world of movie trailer voiceovers, but it’s also about the larger question of how women speak, and what it takes for them to be heard. On screen and in press for the movie, Bell objected strenuously to vocal fry, and to what she calls “Sexy Baby Voice.” At one point in the movie, she tells a woman who has an advanced case of SBV that she sounds “like a squeaky toy,” and not like the corporate attorney that she really is. If women want to be taken seriously, Bell’s character concludes, they need to sound serious — and she starts a business to teach them how to shed their feminine vocal affectations.

It’s a great movie, but the end left me feeling unsettled, because feminine vocal affectations aren’t the problem. The problem is that we don’t take femininity seriously — and we don’t take people who behave in a “feminine” way in the workplace seriously, whether that means having long hair, or visibly being a mother, or speaking in a way associated with women, and young women in particular.

Don’t get me wrong: vocal fry drives me mad. Up-talk makes me crazy. Other feminine vocal affectations, like starting a sentence on a very high note before dropping down, or the overuse of “like,” and “you know,” drive me up the, like, you know, wall? I have to restrain myself from rolling my eyes when this happens:

MODERATOR/TEACHER/FACILITATOR: Does anyone have any questions?

MAN: [Asks question]

WOMAN: [Raises hand, usually halfway up] Uh, yeah, I have a question, and it’s piggybacking off what XYZ said, and it’s sort of a complicated question, but what I was wondering is [asks question].

I want to say, “Stop wasting my time.” I want to say, “Stop wasting your time.” But I understand why women do this — why they pad and soften and hedge — whether it’s a conscious choice or not. These affectations and verbal ticks exist for a reason. As Julia Reinstein at New York magazine noted, one recent study posited that rising inflection — up-talk — is a survival mechanism. “A rise at the end of a sentences serves as a signal that the person is not finished speaking, thus deterring interruption or floor-stealing. It’s not a sign of shallowness — it’s a strategy to be heard.” In other words, as a culture, we don’t take femininity seriously, but we get awfully uncomfortable when women aren’t appropriately feminine. Which leaves actual women in a rather tough spot, and results in a plethora of survival strategies and, in this case, verbal workarounds.

Women know that femininity is both punished and rewarded. We also know that acting more “masculine” — being openly ambitious in the workplace, or “pushy” or “brusque,” or speaking directly — can carry both risk and reward. A few weeks ago, in response to an Atlantic cover story about how the “confidence gap” is holding women back in the workplaces, Jessica Valenti at The Guardian suggested that women refrain from negotiating salaries and asking for raises and promotions because they know it can have negative consequences. It’s not a “confidence gap” that holds us back — or at least, it’s not only that — it’s an accurate reading of the reality. We know we’re supposed to “lean in,” but we also know that doing so can have negative consequences, because leaning in isn’t feminine. Asking a direct question or speaking in a low voice isn’t feminine. Making declarative statements with no friendly, deferential, self-doubting question mark at the end, isn’t feminine. We know that in order to achieve what we want, we sometimes have to expend extra energy making sure that people aren’t uncomfortable with how we talk or dress or behave. We have to collude with the expectation that we should be feminine. But we will also be punished for that femininity. This is the impossibly fine lose-lose line we toe, and though women are, historically speaking, quite new to the workplace, we have been toeing this line for centuries.

As maddening as I find vocal fry, as annoyed as I get when women start a question with a 30-second preamble, I understand why it happens. For some women, it’s a conscious choice. For many more, I suspect, it’s unconscious, a habit, and like most habits, it can be broken with some work and time. For still others, it hovers somewhere between the conscious and the unconscious; when pressed, they might admit that they do it to soften the blow of “unfeminine” behaviour. I’m reminded of the young Wall Street employee I interviewed several years ago, who told me that while she doesn’t think a lot about what she wears to work, she never wears a dress on consecutive days. When I asked her why, she took a while to think and then explained that to do so would mark her as too feminine, a pernicious identity in such a male-dominated and macho work environment. So if she wears a skirt or a dress on Tuesday, she makes sure to wear pants on Wednesday and Thursday. But she hadn’t, she insisted, put that much thought into the matter.

The thing is, ending vocal fry won’t magically make the American workplace — or any other place — an equitable environment where equally qualified men and women are taken equally seriously and given the same opportunities. If it isn’t our voices, it will be something else: our clothes, our hair, the myriad other ways we perform femininity. Yes, vocal fry is maddening to listen to, and yes, it’s probably going to destroy your vocal chords, and yes, it makes women sound less credible. But that’s because we live in a culture where femininity — and, therefore, most women — are not considered credible in the workplace. Vocal fry isn’t the problem; sexism is. I have a request, and it’s piggybacking off this whole issue, and it’s sort of a complicated request, but I was wondering if, you know, maybe we could talk about that? TC mark

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