Shrill. This is a real concept women in the workplace have to contend with. Not only are we expected to be conventionally attractive and intelligent (but not overpowering), we also have to worry about the natural tenor of our voices.
A few weeks later I was filling out the evaluation for an adjunct professor’s course I had taken that semester. I overheard a male student talking about her. “She’s just hard to listen to.” Again, I pressed. What did he mean? Why was she hard to listen to? He offered no explanation. Weeks later I heard the term “vocal fry” for the first time.
Vocal fry is the term coined to describe the oscillating sound heard in speech. It is the “fluttering of the vocal cords, resulting in a popping or creaking sound at the bottom of the vocal register.” Based on media discussions, vocal fry is not something one should wish to possess. Though both men and women fry their voices, the phenomenon almost exclusively hinders women.
Women are expected to have higher-pitched voices. Yet, people with deeper voices are perceived as dominant and successful, and more often than not land coveted leadership positions. Men prefer female partners with high-pitched voices and female leaders with low pitched voices. This double standard manifests in vocal fry, which occurs when women attempt to lower their vocal registers. The result is a vibrato that many find unprofessional. One journalist described vocal fry as a “fingernails-on-the-blackboard phenomenon” and vapid.
The correlation between deep voices and professional success is unsettling. Our voices (like so many other female-attributes) are already held to an unattainable standard. If we speak too quietly we are meek, if we are too loud we are abrasive, if our voices are high-pitched we are mousy, and if they are too low we are masculine. The natural tenor of women’s voices has become a subconscious factor in how we perceive a woman’s intelligence and professionalism.
Hillary Clinton gave a speech this past Monday acknowledging her success at the Iowa Caucus. Before she even left the stage, users took to Twitter to attack not the content of her speech, but the what she sounded like. One commentator suggested that Clinton is “incapable of finding the difference between yelling and passion.” Another expressed fear that we would be forced to listen to her screech for the next eight years (“Imagine 8 years of that screech”). Hillary Clinton has long been the recipient of vocally degrading-epithets. Donald Trump has labeled her as "shrill." And the nickname Shrill-ary was tossed around during the 2008 election.
Yet Bernie Sanders is free to yell to his heart’s content. His vocal range is seen as passionate and revolutionizing. Bernie can be as unpolished as he wants—where Hillary must adhere to the feminine standards of both appearance and voice. In 2008, Stanley Fish, in a New York Times article observed:
If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t, she’s too masculine.Eight years later and little has changed. Hillary is a political powerhouse, but she is seen as “calculated” and a “politician” (which in 2016 is considered an insult). She embodies the establishment. Yet, each day on the campaign trail, she must control her tone. Each sound and word that escapes her mouth must be practiced and prepared or she might sound shrill or domineering. Her laugh is a cackle but when she does not laugh she is cold. She cannot win.
Hillary is a public figure, and some could argue that she has placed her voice in the spotlight. But she is an example of one real way women are silenced. Women’s voices tell stories, they advocate for others, they express ideas and values. The attorney I saw argue in federal court was articulate and accomplished. Because of the sound of her voice, her ideas went unheard.