A Woman’s Voice: Asset or Liability

With two highly successful Women’s Marches, the “Me too” movement, “Time’s Up,” “Enough is enough and the numbers of women recently elected to political office, both locally and nationally, there is no doubt that this has been the year of the women! Women in record numbers are finding their voices figuratively and literally.

Much is made of a women’s voice in all arenas. Our voices are often given labels – bossy, aggressive, shrill, nasally, or conversely thin, weak, and high-pitched. All having the effect of diminishing a woman’s impact or her likelihood for success. Men’s voices receive little notice other than when they sound particularly authoritative or resonant – that may receive a positive nod.

Women themselves comment on their own voices. “I hate my voice.” “No one hears me – it’s like I am invisible.” “I can offer an idea, it is ignored. Then ten minutes later a man restates my idea as if it were his own and everyone says, ‘Wow, what a great thought!’” I have heard all of these and more from clients in my studio.

Women need to own their voices in two ways – their figurative voice which has to do with self-esteem, confidence, and belief that what they feel and say matters.  Then there is the literal voice which is breath, vibrations, and sound created within the body itself. The former is based in psychology, the other is based in muscle memory and usage habits.

I work with women on the later, how voice is anatomically created to convey facts, opinions, and ideas in a way that others can hear and respect. There truly is a process which can turn voices from liabilities into assets.

I had the honor, in the run-up to the midterms, to coach a number of women running for office under the endorsement of Sally’s List. In the last election cycle, I was deeply aware of the focus on Hillary Clinton’s voice and made it my goal to help these candidates negotiate the tricky waters surrounding people’s perception of a woman’s voice and her ability to perform the job. A woman who is perceived as a leader must not under-energize or in any way deny her vocal power. Nor can she over-energize, which can lead to the dreaded label of “bitchy.”  I call this speaking style the bluff when the energy resides high in the chest and the throat. A woman seeking leadership must find a way to walk the fine line between projecting with authority and shouting. The energy, the source of her power, must stay low in the body, in the abdomen.  A woman who carries her energy there can be as expressive and forceful as she wants or needs to, without carrying the impression of pressing too hard or barking at her audience.

If a woman wants to develop her authentic and powerful speaking voice, there are three factors, working in tandem, which determines power and clarity. The first is alignment – how you stand affects how you sound and how people react to you. Gravitas starts with the feet in solid contact with the floor. The second is deep central breathing – breath is voice, its power source. The third is space in the mouth – our built-in megaphone. There must be easy space in the throat and mouth for the sound to carry without stridency.

It is a myth that a woman’s voice has to be low in pitch to be taken seriously. Women often try to unnaturally lower their voices by pressing down the voice box. This causes tension and fatigue which can lead to lasting vocal damage. A current popular speech trend heard from young women in reality shows and TV sitcoms is “vocal fry,” which is speaking on the very bottom of the voice and trailing off at the ends of a sentence into to a “fry” sound. The harder a woman presses for a low pitch, the less compelling and flexible she becomes. It is literally a vocal trap. The lower you try to force the voice, the more trapped the sound becomes. Consequently, the voice has less volume, clarity, and variety – less resonance. By making space a woman can maximize resonance which will yield the authoritative sound she seeks.

Society is experiencing a slow but real shift in its attitudes and practices surrounding women both in social and professional arenas. Though we cannot hasten the transitions, a woman, through awareness and practice, can find authentic vocal power that is not shrill and harsh and communicates confidence and authority.

Listen to this podcast that features Rena’s work with Sally’s List candidates below:



Rena Cook

Rena Cook is Professor Emerita at the University of Oklahoma. She is a TEDx speaker, author, voice, speech, confidence, and presentation coach. She is the founder of Vocal Authority, a training consultancy serving attorneys who want to use their voice in more commanding and authentic ways. She has authored several books, including Her Voice in Law, which she co-wrote with Laurie Koller. The book provides additional advice on the above topics and more, and is available at https://www.americanbar.org/.

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