Why We Prefer Masculine Voices (Even in Women)

Low-pitched voices are a social attribute, regardless of gender--and regardless of social context.

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Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference as Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness listens at Stormont Castle in Belfast, December 7, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

Want to lead like a boss? Then speak like a man.

And by that I mean literally speak like a man.

Study after study has suggested that low voices, "masculine" voices, are an asset to those seeking leadership roles, in politics and beyond. And that's so in part because we don't simply think of vocal pitch--the physical trait determined by the size of one's larynx and the length and mass of one's vocal folds--in terms of physicality. We prefer low voices because, we assume, voices say something far beyond the words they convey: We perceive men with lower-pitched voices to be more attractive and physically stronger--and also more competent and more trustworthy--than their less burly-voiced peers. And we perceive women with lower-pitched voices along the same lines (though we also tend to perceive them, tellingly, as less attractive than their Betty Boop-y counterparts).

What's more, our preference for low-voiced leaders holds true, it seems, for those in--and seeking--traditionally "feminine" leadership roles. A new study, published in the journal PLOSOne, has documented a bias toward low-pitched voices even when the owners of those voices are seeking to lead female-dominated bodies like school boards and PTAs. "Overall," the authors note, "contrary to research showing that perceptions of voice pitch can be influenced by social context, these results suggest that the influence of voice pitch on perceptions of leadership capacity is largely consistent across different domains of leadership."

Yes. I mean, er, yes [said in a low voice so as to be perceived to be maximally authoritative]. To make that determination, the authors created hypothetical elections for two traditionally lady-led outfits: one for School Board member, the other for president of the Parent Teachers Organization. They recorded their "candidates"--ten men and ten women, with mean ages of 33 and 28, respectively--uttering a so-common-it's-neutral political phrase: "I urge you to vote for me this November." They then manipulated those recordings, creating two versions, one high-pitched and one low-, of each "candidate's" utterance of the given phrase. Presenting those recordings to a group of 35 women and 36 men, the researchers asked their "electorate" to vote among the candidates--testing the assumption, they say, "that men and women will prefer male and female leaders with more feminine voices for feminine leadership roles."

And they were also, it turns out, debunking that assumption. The low-pitched voices won the day, despite the fact that those voices were seeking "feminine" leadership roles. "The preference is, indeed, consistent," the authors put it: "Regardless of social context, and regardless even of gender, the lower-pitched voice was deemed more authoritative than the higher. As in previous studies, men and women preferred female candidates with masculine voices. Likewise, men preferred men with masculine voices. Women, however, did not discriminate between male voices."

Here are their results, charted:

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School board results: the proportion of votes (+/−SE) cast for the lower-pitched version of male and female voices. A value of.50 represents no discernible preference for either higher- or lower-pitched voices. (PLOSOne)
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PTA results: the proportion of votes (+/−SE) cast for the lower-pitched version of male and female voices. A value of.50 represents no discernible preference for either higher- or lower-pitched voices. (PLOSOne)

So why would this be? Is our discrimination against high-pitched voices so deeply ingrained that we apply it indiscriminately? On the one hand: Yes, maybe. "In the case of women's voices," the study notes, "this bias could be a consequence of lower-pitched female voices being perceived as more competent, stronger, and more trustworthy. That is, these traits are perceived as positive in the context of leadership and could be the mechanism that leads us to prefer female leaders with lower voices." But the preference for lower voices could also reflect another bias, too: toward age, and all that comes with it. The pitch of the female voice declines over a woman's lifespan, the authors point out--meaning that a low female voice might also indicate an older owner. In other words, "men and women may be biased to select older women as leaders, regardless of the type of position in question."

As always, though, there is more work to be done. How, for example, does vocal pitch influence the perception of other types of authority figures--caregivers, educators, business executives, media personalities? What other predictions do we make when it comes to our conceptions of voice and leadership? And, for women in particular, what other assumptions are baked into the way we understand vocal capacities--another in the long list of human attributes that are so natural as to be largely unchangeable? Wherever we fall on the scale of Boop to Bacall, how do our voices affect the way others perceive us?