Is there a Perfect Pitch?

And the immediate followup question is “Should there be?” I’m referring to the story on NPR’s Marketplace the other day about the effects that some women’s voices have on whether they are taken seriously in the workplace. The audio is here, along with a transcript. The article, entitled “Professional women? With little-girl voices?”, is by Ashley Milne-Tyte.

The piece begins with a clip from the recent news, of Monica Goodling (Former Justice Department White House liaison) speaking in her defense during the hearings over the Justice Department firings. She has a noticeably “little-girl”-pitched voice. (I’m sure you remember hearing her during the news or the live broadcasts, and possibly your first instinct was to ask yourself why – in the political feeding frenzy aimed at bringing down Alberto Gonzales from the Attorney General position – the Congressional Democrats were now rounding up and grilling small children. (Or at least that was how it was for me for a split second since I mostly don’t watch television news – I find it too slow and otherwise annoying – and so I heard her on the radio.) It was then announced in the news piece who it was and I thought nothing more of it at the time…)

My own take on this is that it does not matter. You just learn, and move on. Since coming to the USA long ago, I adjusted my expectations about what are considered “normal” pitches of voice here, and while I do notice the variations (sometimes you just can’t help but notice), my behaviour is not affected by them in any major way, as far as I know. In case you don’t know what I mean, I’ll just say that its much more common to find grown up professional women speaking with the “little girl” voices in the USA than in the UK (I can’t speak for sure of mainland Europe, but I’d guess its also true there)… It presumably says something about our relative cultural norms, but I’m not sure what. I’m sure it is not genetics…. I just think that people learn to pitch their voices lower as they get older – not because anyone tells them to (ok, there are famous striking exceptions, like Margaret Thatcher) but because that’s what they hear around them. Here in the USA, however, there’s some reason why many of those voices are not adjusted. I don’t know how this difference arose. Is there some perceived advantage, as suggested by some (see below)? Or is it simply less deliberate than that – Perhaps it’s all bolstered by the wealth of popular and successful Hollywood characters who speak like that? I’ll come back to this point in a short while.

Who cares, anyway, you might ask? Well, let’s get back to the Marketplace piece. From the transcript:

Sheila Wellington cringes every time she hears women like Goodling, who sound years younger than they are. Wellington teaches a course on women in business leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She says that all-important first impression can be determined by a woman’s voice as well as her looks. So it worries her that more and more of her students have voices that make them sound like kids.

Sheila WELLINGTON: They’re little girl voices that project, Take care of me, Be sweet to me, I’m vulnerable, I’m weak.

Wellington suspects a touch of post-feminist backlash may be behind these baby voices. She says most of her students shy away from describing themselves as feminists — a term they seem to associate with man-hating harridans. She thinks they might be unconsciously pitching their voices particularly high to signal their feminine credentials. Or they could just be following the lead of the current crop of young Hollywood role models, who often sound like Alicia Silverstone’s character from the movie “Clueless.”

This is interesting to me, being in a field where women are highly under-represented, due largely to not being taken seriously. Are the males in our field subconsciously adding yet another barrier to women based on pitch of voice? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting issue. I can’t think of any people in my field with the classic “little girl” voice (although I do have friends and colleagues in other scientific fields with voices pitched toward that type), but that’s not exactly a good measure of anything, given how desperately low the numbers are. On the other hand, if Wellington is correct and there is some correlation between that voice and someone’s wish to “signal their feminine credentials”, I’m happy to report that at least in my view the range of feminine expression in physics does not seem unduly compressed as compared to other parts of academia or other comparable professional workplaces. The numbers are low, of course, but the range of characters, (personality types, dress sense, interests, etc) is pretty good, I’d say.

Female Science Professor rightly points out that men should be also reminded to take women seriously regardless of their voice pitch, and this is correct, however I think she over-simplifies a bit: This is not really simply a man-vs-women issue, as I understand it, as you can also glean from the NPR programme. The primary commentators are in fact women, and they’re not talking about how women should pitch their voices to better communicate with men, but their colleagues in general. It is an interesting topic indeed, and not one that has an easy set of answers.

So I’ve no conclusion to make here, with regards my own field (or any other for that matter), but it is certainly interesting to think about for a while, especially with regards the geographic variation I mentioned. I’ll finish by saying that the “little girl” voice is just one extreme example of the wider range of voice types I hear here in the USA vs elsewhere. There are many more types that you’ll readily hear on the street, the cubicle or office next door, your colleague in a meeting and on the radio or television, in both men and women. On balance, I think I’d say it’s rather nice to hear this variety. I’ll go as far as saying that it might be a sign of a good thing, a signal of greater diversity and more access for a wider range of people and “types” – your colleague, or that person you’re interacting at work (or teaching in the classroom) can likely come from a much greater range of economic classes, cultures, family backgrounds and so forth. More so in the USA than in the UK (and possibly Europe – although at least as far as academia goes things have changed a lot for the better in the UK in the last several years.)

Or perhaps I’m just being naive….


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