Women Get Punished More Than Men for a Common Speech Mannerism

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As if women needed another hurdle to being taken seriously in the workplace. This time, apparently it’s our annoying voices. According to a new study from the University of Miami, women with a speech mannerism called “vocal fry” — that low, creaky, Kardashian-esque sound at the end of sentences — may be perceived as “less attractive, less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, and ultimately less hirable.” Men were also seen less favorably when they had vocal fry, but they were punished less severely for it.

In the study, young people were recorded saying “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity” twice — once in a normal tone, once in vocal fry. Then, 800 study participants listened to the recordings and were asked which voice sounded more educated, competent, trustworthy, attractive, and worthy of hiring. Over 80 percent of the time, and in every category, participants preferred the normal voice — and they tended to rate women who had it lower than men who did.

"Humans prefer vocal characteristics that are typical of population norms,” said Casey A. Klofstead, an associate professor at the University of Miami and author of the study, in the press release. “While strange-sounding voices might be more memorable because they are novel, humans find 'average' sounding voices to be more attractive. It is possible that speakers of vocal fry are generally perceived less favorably because vocal fry is accompanied by a dramatic reduction in voice pitch relative to normal speech.”

Excessive use of vocal fry was once regarded as a speech disorder, but today it can be heard in the conversations of many perfectly healthy young women. It is thought to have emerged as a trend from pop culture, particularly music. Makes sense for a generation that grew up hearing Britney Spears raspily croon, “Oh baby baby … ”

This isn’t the first time working women’s voices have been criticized. Back in 1995, Clueless brought with it the popularization — and derision — of Valley Girl "uptalk." Adults naturally criticized a method of speaking in which, by ending sentences with a higher inflection, young people sounded less, like, confident and stuff? But almost a decade later, a University of California, San Diego study argued that working women use uptalk for a perfectly valid reason. A rise at the end of a sentences serves as a signal that the person is not finished speaking, thus deterring interruption or floor-stealing. It’s not a sign of shallowness — it’s a strategy to be heard.

What’s concerning, as always, is the degree to which women are judged more harshly than equally qualified men. This study just serves as further proof that women’s success often depends on superficial details men don’t have to think twice about, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given that we live in a world in which commentators compare Jill Abramson’s voice to a “nasal car honk” and hear Hillary Clinton’s assertive tone as “shrill” and “nagging.”