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Why Some Grown Women Sound Like Girls

How many of us gain psychological safety while sacrificing credibility at work?

Source: Lapina/Shutterstock

When I’m asked to work with leaders in my role as a presentation coach, I repeatedly hear a few common challenges, including:

1. The leader needs to more clearly present technical information to non-technical audiences (with “technical” being a placeholder for anything complex or industry-specific).

2. The leader needs to engage the audience and make the presentation feel more conversational.

3. The leader needs to be able to handle questions with more confidence, and without getting side-tracked.

To be clear, these are the presentation roadblocks I hear about both men and women. But there’s one request that I hear about exclusively when I’m asked to work with a female leader: “Can you help her sound older?”

“Tell me more,” I prompt.

The client often goes on to share that the leader has a sing-song tone of voice, speaks in a breathy way, or that her sentences end in a questioning tone (often referred to as “upspeak”) – all of which we associate with girls rather than adult women. The impact is that the leader isn’t perceived as having the gravitas or executive presence necessary to command respect, grow in her role or advance her career.

As I have learned over the years, unlike helping leaders to simplify their message, build rapport with an audience, or manage tricky questions, helping female leaders sound less like girls and more like women is complex.

Part of the challenge is physiological, part is cultural, and part is learned behavior. Males and females have different vocal fold sizes, and the shorter vocal folds of women makes their pitch higher. Furthermore, some women simply have more naturally higher-pitched voices than others.

In her book, The Human Voice, journalist, sociologist, and radio broadcaster Anne Karpf cites some eye-opening cultural differences regarding pitch:

  • Women in almost every culture speak in deeper voices than Japanese women.
  • American women’s voices are lower than Japanese women’s.
  • Swedish women’s voices are lower than American’s voices.
  • Dutch women’s voices are lower than Swedish women’s voices.

Karpf notes that, for Dutch speakers, whose native society doesn’t significantly differentiate between its image of the ideal male and the ideal female, there are few differences between the male and female voice.

That begins to address the biology and the culture – both of which are unlikely to change (even with professional coaching). What can be addressed and altered over time is the learned behavior that is contributing to the problem.

Here are three reasons why grown women sometimes sound like girls:

1. To minimize their power. Too often, women at work still struggle with the authority they have earned, in both their relationships with men and with other women. By speaking like a girl, they divest themselves of one of the most outward signs of power — a commanding presence — in an attempt to level the playing field. It's overcompensating by under-compensating.

In addition, by using a tone of voice that goes up at the end, a woman can leave people with the impression that she is simply asking questions or making suggestions rather than deciding. While it may make colleagues feel less intimidated, it undermines a woman's professionalism overall, and may have a negative impact on future advancement opportunities.

2. To stave off assertive input from others. When a woman makes herself sound younger and more vulnerable, she is unconsciously broadcasting to her colleagues, direct reports, clients and supervisors that she can't or won't defend herself, so don't be tough on her. Who wants to be the big bad wolf who makes a woman cry at work?

She is, in essence, protecting herself from challenging conversations, negative performance feedback, and difficult news — all of which every leader needs to engage in in order to grow and develop. By shielding herself from the tough stuff in the short-term, she is putting up a barrier to her long-term career development.

3. Because it works! Many women are unaware of the fact that they're using this softer, sing-song tone of voice. However, they are smart enough to know that something about their communication is working for them, perhaps preventing difficult conversations and direct feedback, and not being held accountable for tough decisions. What may temporarily boost their confidence may undermine their credibility down the road.

Once women hear themselves the way others hear them, see how their learned behaviors may be both serving them and holding them back, and then master the mindsets and skills needed to lead with confidence and conviction, their voices begin to reflect that confidence and conviction too.

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