Higher Voices Win Mates, Lower Voices Win Elections

09 January 2013 | culture,linguistics,philosophy,science | Tags: ,

Which is your favorite Margaret Thatcher?

No surprise to most heterosexual men has been the consistent finding that women with higher-pitched voices attract more male attention. This finding has been observed even at the subtlest levels, such as measured differences in attractiveness between different stages of the menstrual cycle. In hunter-gatherer populations, women with higher pitched voices achieve better reproductive success in terms of number of children, a finding you won’t be able to match in a modernized nation with family planning.

Shifts in estrogen drive these involuntary shifts in vocal pitch, theoretically signaling higher fertility levels as well as indicating age. In general, younger women sport higher voices, which fall dramatically during and after menopause. Women about 2 days from ovulation (a high point for estrogen) usually have the highest pitched voice that they will have at any point in their menstrual cycle.

These pitch adjustments can also be driven by cultural cues, with women changing their vocal approach to acute situations both subconsciously and knowingly. Listen to a woman you’re currently familiar with when she answers the phone or approaches the object of her affections. Generally her vocal pitch will increase, perhaps subtly or perhaps not so subtly.

But where a higher voice can increase sexual attractiveness, a lower voice tends to be required to gain respect.

“To be taken seriously, I put on a certain voice the way I put on a certain dress, a voice that lashes my Valley Girl intonations. I try to meet anyone I need to impress down in the lower registers,” writes Katrina Onstad in the Globe and Mail.

Several studies from the past 2 years resulted in evidence supporting the theory that lower voices command a greater sense of authority across both genders. A study published late last year in PLoS One revealed that elections featuring roles typically held by females (e.g. PTA leadership), in which two or more female candidates ran against each other, resulted by and large in the deeper-voiced candidate winning the election.

Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher serves as the contemporary model of a strong and commanding woman, one whose voice sounds authoritative. But Thatcher famously went through a program of vocal training to achieve this style.

Are attractiveness and respectability mutually exclusive aesthetics for women? Men don’t need to walk this tightrope: many studies confirm that not only are deeper male voices more sexually attractive to women, they’re also more likely to win elections and hold more powerful positions in corporate leadership.

The feminine-or-professional Faustian bargain can be observed in all aspects of the choices women make when making appearances in the workplace and the public eye. Advisers of female professionals, quite aware of the disadvantage a woman’s voice has in the male-dominated boardroom, tell women to lower pitch “to sound authoritative and credible.”

Now, many men will say, “but I like women with lower voices.” Great. Good for you. You have instantly demonstrated the limitations of relying on statistical tendencies to dictate truths. Give yourself a high five.

Empirically, I can find many examples of men decrying the tonality of the voice of a woman in political power. News anchor Mark Rudov, for example, spends 8 minutes of network time lambasting Hillary Clinton’s “nagging” voice, while his female correspondent throws inconvenient facts at him that fly in the face of his assertion that “men don’t like her” (the statistics she cites paint a very different picture — worth a listen if you want more anecdotal evidence in support of the idea that men are actually the more emotional gender when it comes to public dialog.)

When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear “Take out the garbage!”

Now I truly find Clinton’s voice annoying, but not because of her hoarseness — the only vocal quality named and harped on in the dialog above — more because of her nasality. Maybe that’s what sounds like “nagging” to some men and what older women like my mom seem to like about it.

And what of Meg Whitman, whose voice the male anchor so prizes? “I’ll listen to her any day of the week,” he says.

Huh, funny. In Whitman’s voice I hear “grown up valley girl” and quite a lot of vocal fry / creaky voice — the subject of quite a bit of curiosity and ire lately, and also the subject of my next blog post.

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