Patriarchy has always strived to strip women of our voices. But as we make headway in the workplace and witness more women claim leadership roles, we’re no longer judged by merely what we say, but also by how we say it.
Best-selling feminist author Naomi Wolf fueled a firestorm in July when she published an open letter to millennial women. “Young women, give up the vocal fry, and reclaim your strong female voice,” she wrote.
What is vocal fry? And why are we asking women to apologize for it?
Known among linguistics as “creaky voice,” vocal fry is a specific type of phonation caused by slackening the vocal cords. In regular speech, the vocal cords vibrate to release a steady stream of air, but in vocal fry, the lax cords vibrate irregularly and thus flap open and closed so the air is instead released in audible spurts.
Commentators have noted the Kardashians, Britney Spears, and Zooey Deschanel for their infamously creaky voices. But while both men and women alike use vocal fry, it's largely women who are criticized unfairly for it.
Sure, a 2011 study found that two-thirds of a small sample of college women use vocal fry, and American youth deem it virtually irrelevant — in fact, a 2010 study found that a bulk of young people have a generally favorable impression of women who speak with creaky voices. But while the “speech impediment” doesn’t seem to faze them, it could actually be hurting women’s job prospects, according to a more recent study published in the online journal PLOS.
This study — conducted by Duke University researchers Rindy C. Anderson, Casey A. Klofstad, William J. Mayew and Mohan Venkatachalam and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation — suggests that women who use vocal fry sound less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hire-able. It’s another voice mannerism like run-on sentences, breathiness, and “uptalk,” which is the tendency to dilute sentences with questions, that undermine women’s authority.
The researchers asked seven young men and seven young women to say the phrase, “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity,” in both a normal tone and in vocal fry. Then, 800 men and women of a variety of ages were invited through an online survey to listen to the samples and select which speaker (normal or fry) they found to be more educated, competent, trustworthy, attractive and appealing as a job candidate.
For each trait, the listeners preferred the normal voice to the fry voice, regardless of the speakers’ genders. The respondents were less likely to say they’d want to hire the person with the fry voice, particularly because they found them to be less trustworthy. They also preferred a normal voice 86 percent of the time for female speakers and 83 percent of the time for male speakers when taking hiring someone into consideration. Likewise, women using fry were viewed more negatively than men using vocal fry, and, in general, negative perceptions were stronger when the listener was a woman.
Researchers suspect that women may be disproportionately penalized for using vocal fry merely because they're expected to, biologically, have higher voices. In fact, back in 2013 Slate noted that older men, who are typically in power positions over young women, find vocal fry intensely irritating.
Slate Lexicon Valley podcaster (and NPR On the Media host) Bob Garfield complained: “Something happens to their voice, as if they have a catch in their throat.”
Over the course of the 26-minute podcast, Garfield describes the speech pattern as “vulgar,” “repulsive,” “mindless,” “annoying” and “really annoying.” “I want the oil to stop frying,” Garfield said. “I want someone to wave a magic wand over a significant portion of the American public [i.e. women] and have the frying come to an end.”
For women, however, vocal fry is quite the conundrum — to “come to an end” with it may be easier said than done because it may actually be a subconscious retort to the entrenched understanding of our other speech mannerisms society would call inadequacies. A wealth of research suggests that individuals with deeper voices are perceived as more dominant and are more successful at obtaining leadership roles — so perhaps women drop their voices to guttural levels to demonstrate strength, confidence and thus competency. We live in a world in which we’re told we should speak like men to get ahead, and then adversely hindered for doing just that.
A 2011 study, “The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?” published in Catalyst, found that self-advocacy skills actually correlate with workplace status and pay more directly than merit itself. So, speaking well for oneself is a bigger facilitator to faring well in the workplace than working hard.
For example, science would support Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the presidential elections, as commentators continuously criticized her voice. Experts have delved into the nuances behind her allegedly annoying voice and also into the many ways her credentials were compromised because of her patterns of speech.
Perhaps, then, the conversation should not be focused on speech but, rather, status—not who we allow to use vocal fry, but instead who we allow to obtain power.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.