I hear it every day: women need more power. Women will become more powerful by being more vocal. As I go throughout my everyday life, I see society really taking this to heart. Teachers, pastors, parents, and politicians are all encouraging women to speak out. Why is it not working, then? How are women supposed to become more powerful when women who speak out are immediately written off or silenced?
Power Has Undertones… Literally
In a Public Speaking class at college, my professor declared that, as women, we would fail to be understood by co-ed or all-male audiences. If we want people to listen to us, we needed to learn how to speak differently. I learned that the power of capturing a crowd’s respect had to do with the very nature of “tone” itself. If a woman wants to be taken seriously in a group or public speaking setting, she needs to end her sentences – even questions –on a lower tone than she began the sentence with.
If this seems like a far-fetched claim, just take a look at the fraud known as Theranos, which took the internet by storm in 2019. Elizabeth Holmes claimed that her company could conduct blood testing with tiny amounts of blood, technology that would revolutionize medicine. Unfortunately, it was a flat-out lie. Despite its exposure, Theranos was extremely profitable, leaving one question at the forefront of everyone’s mind: How was Elizabeth Holmes able to continue raking in funds with nothing but an empty promise?
The rumored answer set everyone from the Chicago Tribune to The View buzzing. Apparently, Holmes used a “fake voice”. In other words, she intentionally lowered her voice in order to convince people she was trustworthy.
Can making one’s voice lower really increase their authority and credibility? According to a study in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior in May of 2019 entitled: “Voice Of Authority: Professionals Lower Their Vocal Frequencies When Giving Expert Advice”, it absolutely can.
The study asked both men and women to comment as experts for a radio show. They were curious to see if participants would adopt similar tones when asked to speak as an authority, regardless of age or gender. Among the findings was this: “Critically, for both sexes, authority speech was characterized by lower mean F0 (voice pitch) and lower Pf (formant position) compared to control speech. Furthermore, the model revealed a significant interaction between condition and sex on mean F0, indicating that women lowered their voice pitch more than did men in the authority speech condition.”
These participants were speaking into a microphone in an empty room, yet they all instinctively reached for a lower tone. In the role of a credible expert, they needed a lower voice. While men only reached for a slightly lower tone, women dropped their voice as though it had been asked to limbo.
We need these undertones in order to demonstrate our trustworthiness and power in society. Women tend to have naturally higher voices. That combined with the number of tagged questions and higher inflections women use everyday is a recipe for disaster. Society associates high voices with adjectives such as “cute”, “dumb”, “annoying”, “fake”, “spoiled”, or “petulant”. It’s why a woman in my neighborhood asked her husband to record a message for her voicemail. She has internalized societal prejudice and even as a grown woman hates the sound of her own voice.
While the undertones associated with speaking to co-ed or all-male audiences are important, it’s not everything. I have only briefly touched on one issue stopping women expressing their perspectives, ideas, and experiences. Another unrelenting obstacle women face is simply that we may never even get to finish our –
Power Cuts You Off
I cannot begin to tally the number of times that people have cut me off while talking. My jokes are funnier with a punchline. My train of thought makes more sense when it actually arrives at the station instead of the passenger jumping out the window. What really stings is that most of the time it is because I cannot match the same booming resonance of the men in the room. It makes sense, though. Power is being able to say what I want for as long as I want. According to society, others hearing and acknowledging my opinion makes it more important. How do I ensure that people are hearing me and ignoring my opposition?
Interruption. It’s the must-have social and verbal technique in asserting dominance and authority. Interruptions are a strong declaration of power. Anyone watching a presidential debate has a front-row seat to an all-out struggle for dominance. The research shown in “Women’s Language” or “Powerless Language?”, conducted by O’Barr and Atkins supports the motivation behind interruptions. Turns out interruptions are related to power dynamics more than any other factor, including gender.
When it comes to interruptions between men and women specifically, men interrupt women more than women interrupt men. The reason lies in the landmark essay “Men and Women Talking”, in which Gloria Steinem writes, “The uncomfortable truth seems to be that the amount of talk by women has been measured less against the amount of men’s talk than against the expectation of female silence”.
Society believes that I should default to guarding my tongue. If I speak out, I am starting to strain the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. If I push even farther and speak as much as a man does, I am hogging the conversation. This is true both in the personal and professional sphere.
Women are often cut off in professional settings because of long-standing societal beliefs. People tend to subconsciously believe that women are fairly simple creatures whose ideas and contributions hold little to no value. Even worse, if a woman begins sharing a million dollar idea, a male coworker can treat it as a great starting point before picking it up and running with it – nevermind that the original owner of the idea had yet to finish her sentence.
Women who speak up face penalization in professional, classroom, and social settings. Men reap rewards for identical behavior.
This is a double-edged tragedy. We frown upon women who show any ambition, yet silence leads to invisibility. Either way, opportunities pass them over for their male counterparts. The other side of this are the businesses, societies, and classrooms that are losing the unique ideas, perspectives, and experiences women bring to the table.
How To Pick Up The Metaphorical Megaphone
With the odds so clearly stacked against women before they even their open mouths, it seems as though there are no solutions in sight. However, here are some things that women can do to build their power.
If you are a woman with a higher voice, I plead with you not to be ashamed of your pitch nor feel as though you voicing an idea will immediately diminish its credibility. You are an intelligent and independent thinking human being who is able to contribute to the conversation and world at large. Speak with confidence, speak often, and let your words speak volumes.
If you are a woman facing frequent interruption, call people out on their assertiveness. I understand the inherent feeling of wanting to be polite and not wanting to make a fuss, however I would point out a couple of things: 1) there’s no reason calling someone out has to be malicious, and 2) we teach other people how to treat us, and that sometimes requires us letting others know they have crossed a line. Saying, “Hey, I actually haven’t quite finished with my thought. Do you mind if I finish it before we move on?” can be the beginning of feeling satisfied and confident with yourself and your own ideas, as well as alerting others to insensitive behavior. Often interrupting others has become so natural people no longer realize what they’re doing.
Women should claim more power by speaking out and sharing their unique experiences, ideas, and perspectives.
Find your voice by listening to the sound of it. Do not allow your power to be silenced.