Past research has suggested that, all things being equal, people tend to prefer deep-voiced candidates for leadership positions. But biologist Rindy Anderson and political scientist Casey Klofstad thought these preferences might depend on context — if the leadership position in question was one seen as traditionally female, like PTA president, might higher voices prevail?
For a study published in PLoS ONE, they recorded 10 men and 10 women saying the amusingly presidential phrase, “I urge you to vote for me this November.” Then they digitally manipulated the voices to sound higher or lower. They played the new high and low voices to a group of men and women, but with a twist: They told the participants that the speakers were running for a school board seat or PTA president job, not the presidency of the United States.
The result: Men preferred lower voices in both male and female candidates. Women, meanwhile, preferred other women with lower voices, but showed no preference among the men.
Essentially, both men and women favored women with lower, more masculine voices, even for jobs that are traditionally dominated by women (according to the Anderson and Klofstad, 77% of PTA presidents were women as of 2007). The study authors write that low-voiced women may be seen as “more competent, stronger, and more trustworthy” than their higher-voiced counterparts — apparently, sounding masculine makes you seem like you’ll be better at your job.
This could put women in something of a double bind — Anderson and Klofstad mention previous research showing that female leaders can be judged for behaving in ways deemed insufficiently feminine. But to get the job in the first place, they may have to sound masculine. This kind of conflict could be one reason women remain underrepresented in corporate and government leadership positions — they’re expected to act like men, but then sometimes penalized when they do.
One interesting wrinkle in the findings is that women didn’t seem to care about voice pitch of male candidates. The study authors speculate that for stereotypically female jobs, women may actually value men with feminine qualities like a higher voice. Given the much-vaunted recent movement of men into previously female-dominated industries, this area will likely merit further study in years to come — it’s possible that when men move into traditionally female roles, they’ll face some of the same conflicting expectations that women do now.