Women are now seen, but are we being heard?

As some of the world’s most prominent female leaders gathered for KPMG’s annual Women’s Leadership Summit, on June 28th, it was clear that after decades of campaigning for equality, women are at last ‘seen’ in the upper echelons of business and politics. But, how well they are being heard?

In a world where lower pitched male voices are still seen as conveying more power, women may well be fighting a losing battle when it comes to seeking vocal equality because the average female speaking pitch is 20% higher than the male. Dr Kayes, a prominent voice coach, explains that this is due to physiological factors such as size of larynx and length and thickness of vocal folds, which differ between the genders in adulthood.

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And according to research, she goes on to explain, political leaders with lower voices tend to be perceived as more dominant and attractive.

This equation of: lower pitch = perceived testosterone = power, may be highly frustrating, from a gender equality perspective, but according to Dr Kayes, there is plenty that women can do to make good use of their own innate pitch range for influencing others when in roles of leadership.

To see this in action, she takes a look at these videos of the leadership summit’s three keynote speakers, and analyses how they use their own pitch range effectively: Condoleezza Rice (former US Secretary of State), Lynne Doughtie (Chairman and CEO of KPMG) and Ginni Rometty (Chairman and CEO of IBM).

The first similarity you notice between these three powerful women is the musical pitch of their voices. When you listen to the pitch of someone’s voice you are listening for two main things – the resting pitch range (the ‘notes’ where their speaking voice mostly sits) and the larger pitch range (the range of notes used for expressive purposes or calls to attention). It is that combination which leaves us with an impression of that particular voice and, therefore, that person.

When you speak, you use different pitches or notes in your speaking range. In voice research studies, this element is called ‘frequency range’ (frequency in this instance meaning the number of vibrations per second that your vocal folds make, which is roughly equivalent to pitch.) Using acoustic analysis, means, upper and lower frequency ranges can be measured.

Everyone has a small set of notes that they speak on regularly, and a larger set of notes that they may use for emphasis (both higher and lower than their regular speaking range). Sometimes these are defined by our voice type or the size of our vocal folds, and sometimes this is dictated by our environment, cultural background and so on.

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Both Doughtie and Rometty have very low speaking pitches – both use the notes between low D and G (below middle C on the piano). Rice has a higher speaking pitch (from the G below middle C to the D above) but Rice’s bottom note, is towards the lower end of female speaking pitch averages.

Returning to the aforementioned equation of lower pitch = perceived testosterone = power, Doughtie, Rometty and Rice all speak on a relatively low pitch, but each of them also uses a wide pitch range. This is a particularly useful strategy for women. Using a wide pitch range not only helps to keep listeners interested, allowing them to engage with you, it also avoids the pitfall of ‘higher is louder’, an acoustic fact of the voice in which pitch and volume co-vary. So if the overall pitch is higher, using volume for emphasis might cause people to hear the speaker as shrill and hysterical.

The wide pitch range is most noticeable in Doughtie’s video for Business Insider UK. As we listen to her description of the difference between a mentor and a sponsor, her voice jumps well over an octave up to the F above middle C. That large jump in pitch alerts the listener to the fact that “a sponsor” is exciting and worth having. In that one minute interview Doughtie covers almost two octaves in her speaking voice. This is a flexible voice which demonstrates that she is involved in what she is sharing, eliciting a sense of empathy from the listener.

There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ pitch range–it is all about context. For example, Hillary Clinton was criticised during the 2016 presidential election campaign for being ‘shrill’, and falling into the trap of shouting out her message instead of letting the microphone do the work for her.

Listening to some of Ms Clinton’s speeches during the 2016 election campaign, including the Detroit Speech referred to above and her Victory Speech in Iowa, you can hear that whatever her resting pitch range she tends to use volume for emphasis, rather than pitch variation. And–worryingly in both these examples–you can hear an underlying ‘rasp’ that indicates she may well have been pushing her voice to create volume.

Ms Clinton would have benefitted from some advice on hydration and regular vocal warm-ups to keep her voice fit for delivering speeches day after day. Varying her pitch range would have enabled her to take the pressure off her voice and maintain vocal stamina throughout the campaign.

But it’s not just about pitch. In studies investigating vocal charisma in leading public figures, people in positions of leadership were noted to vary their voices within a single speech, in order to appeal to a wide range of listeners: different ages, genders and cultural backgrounds. Researcher Rosario Signorello of UCLA also found that the same politicians might use different pitch ranges for different situations.

So how do we adopt these learnings into day-to-day life? Dr Kayes shares her expert insight.

Addressing large groups

Aim to set an inspirational tone: use a wide pitch range and vary it often for emphasis and interest. You can easily find your personal ‘resting pitch-range’ by reading a few sentences from your planned speech aloud and then reading it again but with your lips closed. It’s an excellent way to hear your own pitch. Putting a hand over one ear will also help you hear your pitch range internally. Now read the sentences again, in exactly the same way but this time exaggerating the up and down movements of your pitch. Now read aloud in a normal voice but still using the exaggerated pitch range. Record yourself–how did you sound? Where would you like your pitch to go up and where would you like it to go down? Soon you will become more comfortable with using your voice in this expressive way and it will feel more natural to you.

The business meeting

In an important meeting with colleagues you won’t want to sound too excitable, so use a smaller pitch range and a generally lower speaking pitch. To access that lower pitch, say “uh-huh” in as natural a way as possible. Closing the lips always helps to increase our internal awareness of pitch, so now make the sound “mm-mm”. Making the same sound do a small nose-dive in pitch downwards is if slightly sceptical. Slightly is the key-word here. If you want to access some higher pitches, make a slightly surprised “mm-mm”. Then practise using these more moderate pitch changes in some key sentences such as “well, that works for me” or “I think we’ll need to discuss this further”.

The informal interview (radio or TV)

In the informal interview it’s important that use your normal comfortable pitch range, so that you sound spontaneous and natural. Change of pitch can also alert your listener to the most important point you want to make. Refer to Doughtie’s textbook example above.

If you are feeling a bit nervous about the interview make some low-pitched buzzing sounds on a ZZ or VV to get your breathing centred. Aim to let go of your belly when you need to breathe in and to gently pull your belly inwards when you make the ZZ or VV.

Remember that the female voice has its own powers of persuasion! Learning to use it properly will ensure we are both seen AND heard.

Dr Gillyanne Kayes is a Voice Coach for ITV’s The Voice and CEO of Vocal Process. She has worked with some of the world’s leading actors, singers and West End artists, helping them to get the best out of their performance. The ‘1 Minute Voice WarmUp’ app, a collaboration between Dr Kayes, voice guru Jeremy Fisher and app developer www.speechtools.co, is now available to download on IOS and Android.