Leadership Matters: Women at work, find your voice

Vocal habits influence perceptions of women's professional capabilities.

There’s a lot riding on women’s voices today. Consider this story: A friend of mine launched a research and development company for new initiatives in the food and beverage industry. He picked up a celebrity client whose hit list is august enough to earn him the status of elder statesman in Hollywood. Usually, he plays the good guy.

The actor was looking to develop a new product that would capitalize on a particular nut that grows in abundance in the neck of the woods he calls home (when he isn’t on location filming blockbusters). The client’s wife took all the initial meetings with “Eliza,” an extremely competent young project manager who acted as the company’s primary representative during the first phase of R&D. Occasionally the star himself scrawled notes in the margins of reports with praise or, when the food science jargon got too deep, questions like “What the hell is that?”

After phase one was completed to everyone’s satisfaction, Eliza and the client’s wife made moves to arrange the first in-person meeting with the celebrity himself. As the plans advanced, Eliza heard this caution: “You can’t meet with my husband unless you get rid of your vocal fry. He won’t even talk to you.”

Vocal fry is a low, croaky style of speaking that some culture watchers say was popularized by the Kardashian family. It’s commonplace today, especially among younger women, although both genders have vocal fry to varying degrees. Predictably, Eliza was upset and insulted. She was good at her job and proud of her work. The meeting with the client never materialized, and his innovative nut product never made it to store shelves. Whether Eliza tried to rid her voice of its creakiness in the lower register remains an open question.


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