Gender bias, not vocal fry and uptalk, is hurting women in the workforce

In an effort to sound more professional, young women are seeking voice coaching and ‘cosmetic’ speech pathology. Specifically, women are criticized for their use of uptalk: the rising intonation pattern at the end of a declarative sentence that can make statements sound like questions.

This “Valley Girl lift,” laments Hofstra university professor Laurie Fendrich, “reveals an unexplainable lack of confidence in one’s opinions and a radical uncertainty about one’s place in the world.” Ostensibly popularized by socialites such as Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, Fendrich writes that the phenomenon makes a woman sound like “an empty-headed clotheshorse for whom the mall represents the height of culture.”

Uptalk’s linguistic sister, vocal fry, is another phonetic trend to come under fire in recent years. Also known as creaky voice,  or laryngealisation, the term refers to a glottal rattle caused by certain movements of the vocal folds. Though the fry is an important grammatical and cultural feature across many dialects, it is known to some today as the way a Kardashian would speak.

Despite the stereotypes, however, vocal fry did not originate among millennial women — in fact, there is no conclusive evidence to show that women even use it more often than men. Since the 1960s, it has been a well-documented speech feature of upper-class Englishmen, who use it to indicate their status as educated leaders.

Here in North America, the host of older, high-profile male vocal fryers includes Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President Barack Obama, and Ira Glass. Male uptalk has been noted as early as World War II. George W. Bush has notably made rampant use of uptalk in his presidential speeches.

Given this history, why do we still associate uptalk and vocal fry with women? Theorists suggest that it is simply disproportionately noticed in female speech.

“All the discussion is about what we think we hear,” explains linguist Robin Lakoff, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “With men, we listen for what they’re saying, their point, their assertions. Which is what all of us want others to do when we speak… with women, we tend to listen to how they’re talking, the words they use, what they emphasize, whether they smile.”

Consider, for example, a 2014 study by the University of Miami, in which researchers recorded seven young men and seven young women saying “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity” in both their regular pitch and in vocal fry. In relation to the male vocal fryers, women’s vocal fry was ranked significantly “less attractive, less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, and ultimately less hireable.”

This result suggests that even when we hold the variable of vocal fry constant, women’s vocal fry is felt to be more uncomfortable than men’s — presumably, because our gender biases lead us to focus more on a women’s delivery of argument, rather than the content. More generally, our relative indifference toward male uptalk and vocal fry suggest that it’s not about the speaker’s register or intonation, but rather whose mouth the speech is coming from.

As U of T students move into the corporate world, these prejudices can have profound repercussions, not only on their levels of success but on their sense of self-worth. This trend of critiquing vocal trends in women is patronizing, discouraging, and does not respect their actual ideas. Our culture’s disproportionate policing of women’s language, from their voices to their diction to their intonation patterns, is uncomfortably similar to its policing of women’s physical appearance.

Just as a woman’s intelligence, lifestyle, and even her self-respect can be presumed by the length of her skirt, the problems another has with her voice are heard over what she has to say. And just as the beauty industry continually invents new reasons for women to feel insecure about their bodi es, Internet articles and other forms of media encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech.

As such, students shouldn’t try to change something so personal as their voice in order to be accepted by the powerful, but rather should call out those who create reasons to dismiss them for it. The same way we’ve been combatting paternalistic beauty standards, the first step toward uprooting these biases is becoming aware of them.

Lauren Park is a second-year student at Victoria College studying history and linguistics.

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