Sometimes it's not looking like too much like a woman that works against you — it's sounding too much like one. Such was the case for Monica Hanna, a NYC litigator who is determined to alter her naturally "screechy, high pitched, and quick-talking" vocal style to be taken more seriously after firm partners called it too "high."
The first time she got the feedback after giving a presentation, she did nothing. But when she heard it again in another evaluation a year later, she realized this was likely becoming detrimental to her career. In a fascinating piece over at NPR, Hanna tells reporter Laura Starecheski what she did next, which, surprisingly, was not get angry or cry:
"I came back to my desk," Hanna says, "and I Googled 'problems with a very high voice' and 'how to change a high voice.' "
One option was surgery, which could potentially help lower her natural pitch. But it wasn't reliable enough, nor would it correct other aspects of what makes a voice sound "feminine." Writes Starecheski:
Men often speak in more of monotone, with a percussive, staccato rhythm, explains Annette Masson, a voice coach at the University of Michigan who works with actors, singers and sometimes other professionals, like Hanna. Feminine speech patterns — more musical, with more pitch variation — reflect the different way women connect with other people, she says.
And then, of course, there is our famous tendency toward uptalk, where we must pose every declarative in the form of a question lest we come off as sounding too sure of ourselves? (Masson says it's a collaborative way of communicating that continues to make sure the listener is engaged, but try telling that to men.)
So Hanna did something a bit controversial to some people — something that had her friends remarking that she was taking anti-feminist moves. She decided to work with a vocal coach to change her voice. She found Christie Block, a speech language pathologist who works with transgender men and women, helping retrain decades of hardwired vocal styles that can be an impediment to passing in their new identities. Block taught Hanna the same techniques she used with transgender men:
Hanna learned to open her throat, creating more oral resonance, to adopt what she now calls her "big voice." Block says she also taught Monica to use fewer words and be more direct.
Instead of asking, "Got a minute?" when she wants to talk to a colleague, she now declares, "One minute." She carefully enunciates, "Hello," instead of chirping, "Hi!" like she used to.
Hanna also mentions in the piece that, when someone tells her news of some kind, she no longer says "Awww," or "That's cute," but now comments, "Oh that's too bad," or "That's really nice to hear."
Block also teaches transgender women the same techniques she's helping Hanna unlearn.
First, the women learn to hit a target pitch — G, third octave. They hum at that pitch, then count at that pitch, and then try saying actual sentences, with rising and falling intonation, all hovering around that pitch.
Then they learn to stretch out their vowels, to slow down — discarding the quicker, more monotone, staccato speech many men use. The mechanics alone can take months to learn. The whole process usually takes years.
Of course, for transgender men and women, particularly women, this is a more serious issue than simply succeeding at work. Tina White, who worked with Christie Block years ago, tells Starecheski:
"It is a very intensive, introspective process to go through," says White. "On TV we like to talk about transwomen dressing up, changing their bodies, and everyone's all titillated by all those sexual parts. I think if you talk to transwomen, voice is psychologically far more important to their sense of acceptance than everything else that everyone else obsesses with."
That's because no matter how feminine you look physically, if a male-sounding voice comes out of your mouth, people will probably raise their eyebrows — or worse.
Here is where I recommend you listen to the full segment:
It's fascinating to hear not just Monica Hanna's "old" voice next to her new one, but to listen in on a minute of Block's workshop to hear these male/female distinctions sounded out.
Months after coaching, Hanna now uses that "big" voice. It's hard to read a woman's natural voice described as "small," because that feels like a reinforcement of the skewed value system we use for how we think of gender differences as bigger or smaller instead of just different. And to me, Hanna sounds feminine, but not in a way I would find distracting at all in a work setting.
That's the thing about bias: It gives you a much different picture of reality than the sum of the parts in front of you: If Hanna is a competent litigator — and everything suggests she is — nothing about her voice need undercut those skills, unless you believe that competence can only sound a certain way, i.e., "big," or "baritone."
Uh, Didn't we already learn this from Elle Woods in Legally Blonde?
But acknowledging this doesn't mean I agree with Hanna's friends, either, the ones who said her desire to change her voice to get ahead is somehow anti-feminist. Starecheski writes:
But for Hanna, the goal was not to work against her identity as a woman, but to find a way to make her voice less distracting.
"I want to be taken more seriously," she says, "from the first words out of my mouth to the last. I'm never going to be a baritone powerhouse. There's something to be said about doing something to improve yourself in a way that adds to your craft and adds to your credibility."
Yes, it's a bummer that the standard is still a male standard, and one that defines competence in such biased, narrow terms, at that. Why can't her work speak for itself? And yet, for Hanna, like many people, her voice simply did not match her sense of herself in the industry in which she wants to succeed, so who could argue that she doesn't have the right to change that?
It's important to remember that there are, in many aspects of feminism, theoretical, intellectual issues we can all agree on — women should not be judged by their voice or have to alter it to demonstrate competency. And yet, there is the every day world in which each of us negotiates a singular fate in one lifetime, and must make choices. In other words, a girl's gotta eat.
And each of us, in some way or another, is trying to pass — as more educated, more cultured, more refined, more attractive. I've spent a lifetime working to enunciate the Southern accent out of my speech for the simple reason that it just doesn't sound very smart, and people have since suggested it's sad I don't have more regional pride, to which I can only say, that the Southern accent simply did not match the perception I had of myself.
And that's why Starecheski's final point — that for Tina White or Monica Hanna, the world can stop focusing on how they sound and pay attention to what they're saying — is seemingly contradictory, yet still resonates. You cannot change the working world or its attendant biases and prejudices without inhabiting it first.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.