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It’s All About That Bass: Women’s voices on radio

By Melody House, University of Strathclyde

Women, particularly when they are public figures, are often strongly criticised for the way they speak and sound. From Margaret Thatcher, who has been described as transforming her voice from that of a ‘shrill housewife’ to a more refined Prime Minister, to Hillary Clinton, voice is yet another gendered way in which women are judged. During the 2016 US Presidential Elections, so much attention was focused on Clinton’s ‘screechy’ voice that it inspired The Atlantic to release a video titled, ‘The Science Behind Hating Hillary’s Voice’. This was accompanied by numerous articles, news shows, and think pieces, all concerned with why Clinton’s voice was so annoying. But she’s not the only one. Increasingly, professional women are seeking out voice coaches in order to ‘correct’ their speech. The most common adjustment is to lower their pitch.

There have been a number of studies on pitch that show people prefer lower voices. Especially when it comes to politicians. People with lower voices are perceived to be more competent, better leaders, stronger, and more trustworthy (according to a study published by the Royal Society). Although lower voices are preferred in both men and women, it indicates a bias towards men. Men’s voices are naturally lower than women’s because of the size and length of their larynx and vocal folds. When Gender Equal Media Scotland (GEMS) tasked me with monitoring radio news on Brexit for three days, I was interested to see how many women I would hear on air, but I hadn’t given much thought to how they would sound. I looked at radio, print, and television news. A detailed report of my findings is in my first blog, and I discussed the sexist stereotyping in print news in my second. Here, I want to focus on how gendered voice bias could affect whose voices make it to our ears.

From 14-16 January 2019, I recorded two Scottish radio shows: BBC’s Good Morning Scotland, and BBC’s Newsdrive. In keeping with the findings in print and television, the majority of expert voices recorded across the three days were male. 70% of them to be exact. What’s even more interesting, is that the exact same percentage of people in the news were men as well (graphs below). This correlates with the overall findings, as there is a clear bias toward the masculine voices when it comes to who is chosen to appear on air. With radio, the only characteristic you have to judge a person by is their voice. Therefore the sound, quality and pitch become incredibly important. This is also true for news anchors and journalists featured on the radio.

Interestingly, both shows had a female anchor. During the monitoring period, Gillian Marles anchored one Good Morning Scotland programme, and Hayley Millar anchored the other two. Mhairi Stuart hosted all three days of Newsdrive. Overall though, male journalists and reporters featured more in both shows - and once again by a large margin. 68% of the journalists and reporters featured were men (graph below).

Professor Mary Beard, who writes and lectures on the history of silencing women, has drawn attention to the apparent preference for deeper voiced radio presenters in the UK. Beard argues that the lack of women in broadcasting roles is most likely due to their higher pitched voices. Having spent a while listening to and analysing Marles, Millar, and Stuart’s voices, I have to say they do appear to register on the lower side of the scale. Regardless of whether or not any of these women or men were ‘chosen’ for their pleasing pitch, it is clear that women are judged more harshly on their voices than men. Going back to the Clinton example above, her opponent in the US presidential elections was Donald Trump. A man whose vocal delivery is not exactly presidential. Although critics poke fun at Trump’s cadence and vocabulary, there are no videos describing the science behind hating his voice, or finding it annoying. Thatcher also struggled with the likability of her voice. She famously received lessons to lower her pitch after her public relations advisor, Gordon Reece, noted her high pitched tones were ‘dangerous to the passing sparrows’. Theresa May has also received criticism. Even when sick, articles are written about her poor vocal delivery, and tips on how she can improve it.

When it comes to representation of women on radio, it seems likely that gendered voice bias plays a role. This is, however, part of a wider bias in favour of men and their perceived authority. It is interesting to note that the world’s first genderless voice, ‘Q’, was released earlier this year. Whether or not this will have an effect on how we perceive male and female voices will be interesting to see. For now, as the evidence clearly shows, it’s all about that bass.

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