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KAI RYSSDAL: This being radio, we put a lot of emphasis on how people sound. In all honesty, though, we’re not the only ones. Voices matter in the wider world of work, too. Every now and then there’s just . . . something . . . about the way a person sounds that makes it hard to concentrate on what they’re actually saying.
It happens with men, of course. But reporter Ashley Milne-Tyte noticed that often it’s women — younger professionals in their 20’s or 30’s — whose voices have a youthful quality. She asked around about how womens’ voices matter to their careers.
MONICA GOODLING: I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions, and I regret those mistakes.
ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: That’s Monica Goodling, the former Department of Justice official who testified before Congress last month about the U.S. attorney firings. She’s 33 years old.
GOODLING: I don’t believe I intended to commit a crime.
Sheila Wellington cringes every time she hears women like Goodling, who sound years younger than they are. Wellington teaches a course on women in business leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She says that all-important first impression can be determined by a woman’s voice as well as her looks. So it worries her that more and more of her students have voices that make them sound like kids.
Sheila WELLINGTON: They’re little girl voices that project, Take care of me, Be sweet to me, I’m vulnerable, I’m weak.
Wellington suspects a touch of post-feminist backlash may be behind these baby voices. She says most of her students shy away from describing themselves as feminists — a term they seem to associate with man-hating harridans. She thinks they might be unconsciously pitching their voices particularly high to signal their feminine credentials. Or they could just be following the lead of the current crop of young Hollywood role models, who often sound like Alicia Silverstone’s character from the movie “Clueless.”
CLUELESS TRAILER . . . And it’s like when I had this garden party for my father’s birthday, right? People came that like did not RSVP.
Emily Lonigro says her voice was never that bad. But her boss did ask her to take some voice training.
EMILY LONIGRO She actually said, “Emily, we need to get the nlee-nlee-nlee out of your voice.”
Lonigro likes the sound of her voice now. She’s mastered exercises to relax her lips, throat, and tongue.
LONIGRO: So that your voice can actually flow out of you instead of getting all caught up right in your face. Or if you’re keeping your mouth shut, it’s like this, and it gets really small.
Deborah Tannen teaches linguistics at Georgetown University. She’s written several books including “Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work.”
Deborah TANNeN: Women in authority are in a double bind.
If they sound too young, Tannen says, they run the risk of not being taken seriously. On the other hand, if a woman sounds too authoritative . . .
TANNEN: . . . Well, that kind of undercuts our expectations for femininity, or for a woman. So she kind of has to choose between being a good authority figure and being a good woman.
NYU’s Sheila Wellington says it’s important for women to cultivate a strong voice. She says a woman who sounds like a child risks being treated like one.
WELLINGTON: In terms of career success, it’s not a good thing. I don’t think children get the responsibility to lead.
Emily Lonigro is delighted to have left her little voice behind. But she hears others like it all the time. She says most women want to be liked and accepted. And having a forceful voice can get in the way of that, particularly in the workplace.
LONIGRO: Making declarative statements is kind of intimidating. It’s a lot easier to say “Um, I’d like to talk about our annual report today,” than “I’d like to talk about our annual report today.
Lonigro’s already seeing the difference a change in a voice can make. She says her voice training has done wonders not just for her presentation, but her confidence as well. All in all, she says, she feels much more professional.
In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.