Pitch Wars: the Gender Bias Behind the Idea of a “Professional Voice”

Is Your Voice Damaging Your Career?

Our voices are part of our character, and naturally, those around us make assumptions based on it. Studies show that people tend to trust lower speaking voices more, does that reveal a gender bias or an innate response? Below you’ll read two perspectives on the topic, from two different people.

Perspective #1

How we present ourselves at work can signal professionalism to organization leaders. But is it only visual cues that management notices? It may surprise you to know that studies show our voices can determine how others see us and ultimately, whether or not we get promoted.

McMaster University conducted a survey, asking subjects to rate tone-manipulated voices (from low to high) by what personality trait the voices embodied: leadership potential, intelligence, attractiveness, honesty, and dominance.

The McMasters study discovered a clear preference for lower-toned, deeper voices when it comes to leadership-type characteristics. Politicians (men and women) actually try to lower their voices to seem more competent and honest.

A PLOSOne study exposed our bias toward lower-voiced individuals even when the leadership role is in community groups historically dominated by women like school boards and PTAs.

Think of actors whose deep voices convey intelligence and dominance. James Earl Jones’s Darth Vader or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy or Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft. You immediately know that these characters will dominate the action.

Duke University in conjunction with the University of California studied several hundred CEOs (men only). Executives with lower voices worked at larger organizations and earned more money. Lowering the voice by 25 percent translated into $187k more per year.

A higher voice is associated with younger, less experienced people. As a result, co-workers don’t trust the work product of employees with a higher-than-average voice. Duke and UC found that soft-spoken and nasal-toned speakers are perceived likewise.

Women typically have higher voices. Could this be a reason why CEO positions belong overwhelmingly to men? Possibly, but women with lower, deeper voices have a much better chance of climbing the corporate ladder.


  • Awareness is the first step. When you know about an issue, you can take action to deal with the problem.
  • Simple nerves may be the culprit when your voice is lower when talking to colleagues but higher when giving a presentation or talking to company executives.
  • Try drinking lots of water to hydrate your vocal cords, don’t strain your voice, cut out smoking, and if at all possible, delete ums” and “ahs” from your vocabulary. These “un-lexical vocables” can undermine your presentation.
  • Listen while you hum a tune. Emulate the resonance in your chest.
  • Talk slowly and use hand movement (but not too much) to highlight important information during a talk. Practice in front of a mirror or ask friends to listen when you prepare for a presentation. Are you frowning? Smiling? Practice makes perfect.
  • And finally, voice training. Everyone has a vocal range. You can learn to tap into the natural lower tones within that range. But this route isn’t cheap.

Professionalism and a lower voice can definitely boost your career. Do what you can to tap into your authoritative voice and see where it takes you.






By Tammy Shaw


Perspective #2

For years, studies have given the same advice to both interviewees and employees seeking to advance: employers view lower voices as more professional. And statistics don’t lie. Overall, lower voices are regarded as more trustworthy, authoritative, and reassuring. Employers are more likely to take employees seriously when they present their ideas with a lower, more “serious” voice, and thus those employees are more likely to succeed. Women especially are encouraged to speak with a lower pitch when applying for a new job or a promotion. This has, naturally, led to the question of gender bias and whether the preference towards “lower voices” is just one other way of putting women at a disadvantage. Because women have naturally higher-pitched voices, they have to work harder in order to be regarded with the same seriousness.

In fact, women’s voices have actually dropped in the last 30 years. A study taken in 1993 compared to a study taken in 1945 showed that the average woman’s voice in 1993 was about a semitone lower than the average woman’s voice in 1945. The times in which these studies were conducted are not insignificant. As late as the turn of the 20th century, women, for the most part, did not work outside the home. It was actually the world wars that began the cultural shift in the workforce. In World War I, many women volunteered their time as nurses and traveled with the men to the front. During World War II, women came into the workforce in mass numbers primarily to fill the gap left by all the men fighting in the war. It was expected, at that time, that after the war, the men would take their jobs back and the women would go back home. Instead, the presence of women in the workforce has only continued to grow.

Most employers, when asked if they would prefer a man or woman for the job, won’t answer, partly because of gender discrimination laws and partly because they genuinely don’t believe themselves to be biased. That’s why it’s important to consider why lower-pitched voices are seen as more professional. Much like many people still assume that doctors are male and nurses are female, the preference towards more masculine voices may be based on a subconscious expectation of the default employee as male.

There may, however, be another layer to the situation. In 2016, Aline Lerner created an interview software called interview.io. The purpose of interview.io was to allow interviewees to practice their interviewing technique without bias, through the use of a voice masking system. In addition, Lerner performed an experiment. She took 234 participants and used the software to mask their voice so that it sounded like the opposite gender. Real interviewers then rated their performance and found that men rated slightly higher, even with higher-pitched voices. Lerner dug a little deeper, however, and found that women were more likely to quit the software and never return after just one interview, while men would try again. Women were also more likely to underrate their performance. The issue, Lerner found, was less about pitch and more about assertiveness.

Still, this brings us back to the original question: why? Why do men have a tendency to be more assertive and confident in interviews, while women have a tendency to doubt themselves? Again, we have to consider that career women are still a fairly recent part of our culture. While men have spent generations going after the jobs they wanted, women have spent the last century in an uphill battle just to be seen as equal to their male peers. When you go into an interview expecting to be met with opposition, it can be much easier to doubt yourself.

The issue of gender bias in the workforce is a layered, complicated one. Often, gender bias is committed without malice or intent. It’s simply the product of decades of pre-conceived notions. But recent stories like the Google Employee Anti-Diversity Manifesto show us that gender bias is still alive and well in the workplace. What can employers do to combat this? One way is to add more women to their company, so that professional women, regardless of the pitch of their voice, become normalized in their office. But perhaps the first step is to recognize your biases so you can learn to see past them.

By Alex Roma

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