Women’s voices after childbirth: a feminist dilemma

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Research reported in various newspapers indicates that women’s voices become temporarily lower in pitch after they have a baby. Here is the beginning of the press release (dated 30 May 2018) that inspired the newspaper articles:

“The pitch of new mothers’ voices temporarily drops after they have had their first baby, according to a new longitudinal study by Dr Kasia Pisanski, Kavya Bhardwaj, and Prof David Reby at the University of Sussex.

The researchers analysed women’s voices over a 10-year period – five years before and five years after childbirth – and found that new mothers’ voices get lower, and become more monotonous after pregnancy. This ‘vocal masculinising’ is not caused by aging, as the voice reverts to its previous frequency one year later.”

The drop in pitch is variously reported as being equivalent to one or two piano notes. It is said to be widely recognized, with the singer Adele quoted as having noticed a drop in the pitch of her singing voice, with one newspaper (the i) quoting her as saying she ‘sounded like a man’ after giving birth.

The researchers go on to say they do not know why this change happens, but they give two possible explanations. The change could have a physical cause, associated with changes in hormone levels in the new mothers. Or, the cause could be a social/cultural one, hypothesized to indicate the adoption with parenthood of a more ‘authoritative’ mode of speech, reflecting increased levels of responsibility. As reported in The Independent, the lead researcher comments that ‘A low-pitched voice is typically judged as dominant, competent, trustworthy and mature, whereas a relatively high-pitched voice is judged as more submissive, feminine and youthful’.

This story raises some interesting questions. In brief, a connection is made between pitch and gender (‘vocal masculinising’), and also between pitch and personality (sounding ‘authoritative’). Inevitably this implies a connection between the two: either men sound more dominant, competent etc because their voices are deeper, or people with deeper voices sound more dominant, competent etc because these qualities are associated with men. This in turn presents the familiar double-bind that women experience in a new form: use a higher pitch and sound ‘childlike’, or use a lower pitch and sound ‘unfeminine’.

It is time for some confessions. I deliberately select the lower end of my own comfortable pitch range when taking part in meetings, especially those where men outnumber women. I could say it is to make my voice carry, but it is really to make myself sound as competent, trustworthy and mature as possible. To be honest, I also find it somewhat irritating when a professional woman selects a relatively high register for her speaking voice, because I do, personally, associate this with inexperience and a lack of maturity and I want the woman in question to project her competence.

Is this a hopelessly un-feminist view? Logic suggests that we should be challenging the association between pitch and the perception of personal qualities, rather than advising women to avoid the upper end of their vocal register. We would not, after all, advise speakers with regionally-accented English to move closer to Received Pronunciation in order to sound educated, intelligent and reliable. On the other hand, I would have no qualms about advising a woman, or man, with a very quiet voice to increase their volume when speaking in public, partly simply to be heard, but also to convey confidence. And politically incorrect though it may be, I think I would still offer the lower pitch advice as well.

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