Between “The Inventor” and “Bad Blood” and “The Dropout,” you could say that society has a collective obsession with Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes. We want to know what made her capable of deceiving not only the general population, but also the great business, media and political minds who were fascinated with her from day one.
People have been pointing to Holmes’ intensely tailored appearance as one of the red flags of her deception. Some people say it was the Steve Jobs-esque turtleneck and the groomed-but-not-properly-groomed appearance that provided Holmes both ethos and an approachable amount of sex appeal: the perfect balance for convincing the likes of James Mattis and Henry Kissinger to both A) pay attention to her and B) actually listen to what she was saying. Others say it was her (likely highlighted) blonde hair or the big eyes she circled with black eyeliner that allowed her to trick us all.
But one of the most interesting things I’ve seen called into evidence of Holmes’s grifting genius is her deep voice. Sources (including the creators of “The Dropout”) suggest that her baritone was fake, and people theorize she employed it to sound more authoritative.
This conclusion led one writer at The Cut to ask, “What Kind of Person Fakes Their Voice?”
“Holmes is obviously guilty of many more serious crimes, but faking one’s voice is just weird, and embarrassing, in much the same way that bad toupees are: they place one’s bodily insecurities center stage,” she wrote.
What’s interesting about our obsession with Elizabeth Holmes’ appearance and its supposedly malicious implications is that lots of women optimize their appearance for professional settings every single day, not to take over the world one blood drop at a time, but to survive (and hopefully thrive) in a professional world that was not built for them.
My answer to “What Kind of Person Fakes Their Voice?” Lots of women. Especially if that woman has a voice that’s deemed “unprofessional” or “threatening.”
“As a Black female, I have at times felt I needed to change my voice, tone and tendency towards slang to sound more ‘professional,’” Jasmine Powers, a marketer and designer from Compton, CA shared with me. “It feels unnatural to try to sound like my peers, but in order to speak their language, I've felt the need to sound chipper and upbeat, smiling as I talk in order to not be perceived as threatening."
As Powers proves, women are making this change consciously. This is a decision some make to be taken seriously and to give themselves the tools to succeed based on their environment.
For some women, that means changing their voice based on cultural expectations:
“Tone of voice and speech are just two tools in our arsenal for getting work done,” journalist Darice Chang said. “In a professional setting, I definitely change my voice to be more suitable to the environment — whether it is in the field doing interviews or facilitating meetings. Especially working in an international setting, I definitely notice I change my voice to be more conventionally pleasant and feminine when speaking in Chinese or Japanese, but am more direct and masculine when speaking in English.”
… to feel more confident:
“I am a woman working in an office with a greater percentage of men than women… in meeting[s], my voice drops into a lower register and I even my tone. I use the same tone when confronting difficult situations,” Jess Wagar, a marketing assistant, shared. “All the men I work with are very supportive and treat me as an equal, but I definitely still feel imposter syndrome often. I think I feel most confident and in control when I control my tone.”
… or even to avoid getting sexually harassed:
“I've found that if I have a higher-pitched voice, I get hit on more by my attendees,” Bonny Albo, a writer and workshop facilitator, shared. “After finding research that showed clearly women raise their voices when they're attracted to a person they're speaking with, I tried deepening my voice and slowing my speech. It worked.”
In fact, this practice is so common that we have a name for it.
“Back in the ’80s, we called it our ‘phone voice,’” Kelley Kitley, a psychotherapist, shared. “I have a strong Chicago accent, so when I’m on TV or traveling for speaking engagements, I do try to tone it down so I’m more ‘neutral.’”
Ashley Washington, founder of a nonprofit tutoring and mentoring organization explained why she’s altered her voice: “I was never explicitly taught to talk differently in professional settings, but I learned it from watching my mother… The moment she picked up the phone for business purposes, she would magically transform from ‘Vickey’ into ‘Victoria,’” she shared. “Because I am an African American woman, some people may hold certain prejudices or biases from the moment they know my identity. I use my professional voice as a way to combat against this. As a woman entrepreneur, I want to have the best chances at success as possible.”
Women change their voices to be perceived how they want to be perceived. They also change what their faces look like without makeup, misrepresent their marital status by taking off their wedding ring, or lie about the amount of kids they have to appeal to the working world. Conflating the core of Holmes’ deception — committing fraud and wiretapping and lying and treating her employees poorly — with her tailoring her appearance to a professional setting is a harmful perpetration of the “femme fatale” myth: that women who “try too hard” with their appearances are out for blood and can’t be trusted. They’re inauthentic, and we hate inauthenticity. Meanwhile, women who don’t try hard enough or are “too real” are lazy, tired or don’t care.
Women who wear red heels to meetings or lower their voices on calls aren’t trying to “trick” anyone. They’re trying to succeed. People like Holmes are capable of mass deception because they are intelligent narcissists with no shame, not because they’re ambitious or willing to put in the effort to change their voice in professional settings. And until we’re all able to separate the two… no woman will win.