In the underrated film I Feel Pretty that came out this spring, Academy-award nominee Michelle Williams showed she has got comedic chops too when she played the role of a glamorous CEO of a beauty empire called LeClaire Cosmetics. Williams looks every bit the part as she is beautiful, fashionable, graceful and appealingly aloof but then she opens her mouth. Williams gave her character, Avery LeClaire, the voice of one that resembles a chipmunk and it was brilliant.
Over the course of the film we start to see Avery unravel as she is put under major pressure by her grandmother (played by notoriously low-voiced Lauren Hutton) who started the company and in one stress-eating scene she confesses to Amy Schumer’s character, who has become her Jiminy Cricket in some ways, that she has tried everything (well really just voice lessons) to fix her high-pitched voice because she knows it underwrites her commanding presence.
Women speak at lower pitches today
The problem seems to be that Avery was born in the wrong era. New research shows that women’s voices today are significantly deeper than previous generations and that is because of roles shifting and power dynamics. Cecilia Pemberton at the University of South Australia studied the voices of two groups of Australian women between the ages of 18–25 years old. They compared recordings of women speaking in 1945 with ones of women talking in the 1990s. It was found that the “fundamental frequency” had dropped by 23 Hz over those 50 years. The average woman’s voice they looked at went from 229 Hz to 206 Hz.
This isn’t surprising as a lower voice is unequivocally considered more dominating. Chimpanzees and frogs know this and do this and so do humans it seems. You can have the right body language, clothing and be as smart as a whip but if your voice resembles that of a muppet, people will automatically undercut you. Perhaps women’s voices are evolving this way as a survival of the fittest type of strategy.
I Feel Pretty screenwriter Marc Silverstein said of Williams’ character, “The voice was written and the part is done as written, but the voice was hers,” Silverstein said. “It was just written super high with a vocal fry, and kind of based on someone that she knows and I know. Just someone we know that’s really successful and smart, but when they get up to talk, you’re like, ‘Whoa. Where did that come from?’ ”
This is why we saw Margaret Thatcher take lessons to lower the pitch of her voice and she went on to win her election and become Prime Minister. Chris Delaney, a career coach and the author of The 73 Rules for Influencing the Interview using Psychology, NLP and Hypnotic Persuasion Techniques said in an interview, “We have all heard that people form an opinion about you in the first 5-10 minutes of meeting you, this is true but the time frame is closer to 5-10 seconds. When using a baby voice or even when you have a baby face, people will feel an instinct to mother you, to protect you.
“This can be an advantage and disadvantage. An advantage can be that you are protected after making a costly mistake at work, the natural instinct to protect and nurture a baby is projected on to your colleagues who will do anything to keep you safe. But what when you are ready for that promotion? Your colleagues and managers already have a prejudice about you; they have stereotyped you as some who needs support from others. With this reputation, you will find it hard to succeed in any promotional interview.”
Interestingly it has also been found that voice pitches for women vary between countries. Women in the Netherlands tend to have deeper voices than those in Japan signifying how power is valued in certain countries versus others.
However, before you go trying to speak lower, researcher Joey Cheng of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told The BBC, “While lower voices – and other assertive behavior in general – effectively signal and assert power and authority in women, as it does in men, it might also have the unintended effect of undermining how well liked they are.” Ay there’s the rub.