Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice? : Shots - Health News Women's voices are often criticized, especially at work. We're called "shrill," told we "lack authority." Here's the story of two women who changed their voices in a quest to be heard.

Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. People can be hard on women's voices, especially in the workplace. Women can be told they sound shrill or lack authority, turning it into a distraction from their work. For our series on the Changing Lives of Women, NPR's Laura Starecheski introduces us to two women who changed their voices to fit in.

LAURA STARECHESKI, BYLINE: All the stereotypes you'd expect about how people respond to men's and women's voices are pretty much true. Research shows that gender bias is a real thing when it comes to voice. Women's voices, in study after study, are rated by listeners as less secure, less competent, less trustworthy. But if I told you the rest of the story like this are you going to trust me more? I doubt it. You'd probably take me even less seriously. And that's the problem a woman named Monica Hannah had.

MONICA HANNAH: One of the things that was holding me back really was my voice. It had always been sort of a screechy, high-pitched, quick talking - it's just how I talk, I think.

STARECHESKI: Monica is a litigator in New York City. She also happens to be about five feet tall and she looks and sounds so young she often gets mistaken for a teenager. A few years ago, she gave a presentation at her law firm. One of the partners gave her this assessment.

HANNAH: Your voice is very high. And I said oh, OK. And then he didn't say anything else. He didn't have any other comment to make about my presentation at all.

STARECHESKI: When her high voice came up again in an evaluation about a year ago, she decided to try to change this thing about herself that most of us think of as unchangeable.

HANNAH: I came back to my desk and I googled, you know, problems with a very high voice, how to change a high voice.

STARECHESKI: First, she looked into surgery. The prognosis for a real change in pitch wasn't great but there's more to sounding feminine than pitch alone. Your speech patterns are a huge part of it too. Women tend to speak more musically with more pitch variation, while men often speak in a more monotone, percussive, staccato rhythm - think Barack Obama for example. Monica needed to instantly command attention in the courtroom, the way her male colleagues did. To learn how, she decided to work with a voice therapist named Christie Block.

HANNAH: Normally, her work is with transgendered people. And, you know, that wouldn't be totally out of line with what I was looking to do since I was looking to, you know, bring out more of a masculine voice.

STARECHESKI: Block is one of very few voice therapists who specialize in working with transgender people. She helps them find a voice that will match their physical appearance.

CHRISTIE BLOCK: It's fabulous, rewarding work. I love it.

STARECHESKI: To work with Monica, Block borrowed some of the same techniques she uses to work with transgender men, to help them have more of a presence and sound more assertive.

BLOCK: So this is my regular voice. With trans-masculine people we kind of open the throat more, and I'm using the same pitch but I'm trying to create more space in my mouth and my throat. So now I have more open oral resonance and I sound bigger.

STARECHESKI: Monica learned to do this, to physically change the way she uses her throat muscles, to adopt what she now calls her big voice. Block says she also taught Monica to use fewer words and be more direct.

BLOCK: We talked about getting somebody's attention. Like, instead of saying got a minute? We would say one minute.

HANNAH: When people would give me news or something and I used to say aw or that's cute. And now I use my words (laughter). Like, oh, that's too bad or oh, that's really too nice to hear. I'm glad that that happened.

STARECHESKI: After months of work, here's Monica's old, small voice.

HANNAH: The tractor man got down from his cab. The other man, the one who was tying up the gates, came and joined the first man.

STARECHESKI: And here's her big voice.

HANNAH: The tractor man got down from his cab. The other man, the one who was tying up the gates...

STARECHESKI: The difference is subtle but Monica says she feels more confident now. And male colleagues don't talk over her as much anymore. When she speaks they pay attention. When Christie Block works with transgender women, the feminine speech patterns that Monica worked so hard to undo are identified and taught one by one.

BLOCK: We're fighting against years and years and years and years of dude voice, right?


BLOCK: That we're trying to get away from.

STARECHESKI: I sat in on a voice workshop with about a dozen transwomen in downtown Manhattan one Thursday night. First, the women learned to hit a target pitch - G third octave.


BLOCK: Very good. Fun? Easy?


BLOCK: You're all getting better at it already.

STARECHESKI: They learn to stretch out their vowels, to create hills and valleys in their intonation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They have great coffee.

BLOCK: Good. So now, really stretch it out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN AND BLOCK: They have great coffee.

BLOCK: (Laughter) Very good.

STARECHESKI: Tina White is a director at the drug company Pfizer. She worked with Christie Block a few years ago. She says her old voice was gentle but much deeper than the way she sounds now.

TINA WHITE: It is a very intensive, introspective process to go through. On TV, we like to talk about transwomen dressing up and changing their bodies and everyone's all titillated by all those, kind of, 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.

STARECHESKI: Transgender women are more likely than other LGBT people to be victims of violent hate crimes. They're most vulnerable when they stand out. So finding a voice that matches your appearance and helps you blend in can be a matter of life and death.

WHITE: When being able to go to use a restroom, not being laughed at at work, not getting beat up on the train on the way home, are dependent on your voice, you are terrified.

STARECHESKI: Tina did voice work for about nine months before she finally felt confident enough to try out her new voice at the office. But then, there was a new fear - that she wouldn't be taken as seriously as a woman.

WHITE: I think that I used to enjoy white male privilege. And so I could be kind of sloppy.

STARECHESKI: Just standing in front of a room and talking was usually enough to feel listened to.

WHITE: I find that I have to think a little bit more and be a little bit more prepared and precise.

STARECHESKI: So there are some trade-offs to finding a voice that really expresses who you are - something both Tina and Monica, the litigator, are willing to put up with.

WHITE: I'm finally happy because it lets me express the feelings that I have inside that I was always keeping bottled up.

HANNAH: It was just a combination of being more confident in my own role and also having, you know, the voice to carry that message across and say no no, this is actually something you really need to hear.

STARECHESKI: That message is finally getting through. And that's the goal of all this hard work - for people to stop focusing on how women, like Monica and Tina, sound and pay attention to what they're saying. Laura Starecheski, NPR News.

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