Women’s Voices – Part 2

(Part 1 here: https://megkingston.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/womens-voices-part-1-small-talk/ )

So what did we learn from Mary Beard’s programme on the Public Voice of Women? A lot of examples from History and Art and Literature, a few from Geography and Entertainment but nothing really from Sports or Science and Nature. (Yes, I nicked the headings from Trivial Pursuit, what’s wrong with that?)

Mary Beard is a highly intelligent, articulate and well-read classics scholar. Hence her experience in and bias towards certain subjects, which made for a fascinating presentation about the historical records (factual and in the fiction of the times) that demonstrate ways in which the sound of a woman’s voice has been regarded. She tried to separate the issue of women’s voices from straightforward misogyny, which I’m not sure is possible. Yes, there are differences, but are these the reason for the discrimination we see today? Shakespeare regularly had women passing themselves off as men by changing their clothes in his plays (never the other way round, as far as I recall), which is even more amusing when you remember that all of his actors would have been male. So a man playing a woman pretending to be a man…

More recently, we know that Margaret Thatcher had training to lower her speaking voice – one way to be taken more seriously in the male-dominated political arena. As a matter of fact, some men in the public eye have had similar training – including actors who’ve been advised to take up smoking to give them gravelly tones. Not a price I’d be willing to pay for a sexier voice!

So men and women alike have realised that we judge people by their speaking tone. Deeper voices are more serious, mature, trustworthy, sexy and therefore something to be aspired to. As a young man, my Dad tried to push his singing voice into the bass register – until he gave up and learned to make the most of his lovely tenor range later in life.

While we’re so close to home, my own voice is deep for a woman – a low alto for any singers reading this. I’ve had people mistake me for a man on the phone. Even one person (Receptionist at the dental surgery I used to attend) who behaved very oddly, asking if the appointment was for me and my “wife” – and once referred to me as “him” to another member of staff. I was amused to realise she must have thought I was cross-dressing or transgender or something. I never bothered to put her right – if she hasn’t learnt after working in that sort of job, then she’s never going to learn that women’s voices aren’t all high, soprano or strident.

I’ve been a member of various writers’ groups over the years and I’ve noticed that the majority of members tend to be women. Yet any men who attend seem to be more likely to get the opportunity to read their work to the group. At a series of meetings in a local group, the men who attended all got to read at every meeting, whilst I was refused the opportunity for four meetings in a row. One man in particular would read long, waffly chapters every week. Now, it could be that my writing wasn’t liked, or any number of reasons, but I believe a gender bias is in operation here. The nominal chairperson at the time was a woman, but she never really took control and the pro-men reading bias steered the meetings.

So, I propose that there’s more at work here than the simple fact that women’s voices are (on average) higher than men’s. That seems to be more a symptom than the cause and the way we’re disregarded goes beyond that. Men with high-pitched voices are regarded as frivolous in the entertainment industry – but in business, they’re still taken more seriously than women, even ones with a lower voice range. I won’t cite personal examples, because I’d risk embarrassing the men in question, but there have been a few. In the working world, I found that men could easily talk over a woman and no-one would blame him for it. The Miss Triggs cartoon cited by Mary Beard is only too true.

In the 20th Century that bastion of UK tradition, the BBC, were responsible for the chocolaty tones of news readers giving out news, both good and bad, in deep, reassuring tones. Nowadays, the “BBC Voice” is something of a joke, but it echoes through our society. They didn’t create it, just gave us a convenient label for the way some men speak. And thinking about the battles that women fought to be allowed to read “serious news” to the nation, media broadcasters haven’t been exactly willing to confront the issue.

So how should we try to rectify the imbalance? How can we tilt ourselves towards a more level playing field?

I don’t have a simple answer. Anything a woman says will be seen as further evidence that she doesn’t have anything useful to contribute, that she should not be listened to. “Oh, you’re always whining about men ignoring you.” I would ask that men start noticing the phenomenon – look out for a woman being shouted over in a meeting, etc. Even if you (a “he”) don’t intervene, it may make you more aware of how often it happens. Women, stand up and be counted when you hear someone complain she’s being ignored. (At least think about supporting her or maybe speaking up for yourself next time.)

This isn’t a trivial matter and it won’t be resolved in a hurry, whatever we do. The examples I’ve cited above all happened, but I’m not saying everyone thinks in a particular way, or that all men will shout down any woman who speaks. But even once would be too often – and I’ve seen it happen many more times than that.

I did suggest at the writers’ group I mentioned earlier, that we should have a time limit on each person’s reading. I even offered to bring an egg timer. This didn’t go down well. But I would propose that idea if I were chairing meetings where a few voices dominated in this way. Feel free to borrow the idea!

Like Mary Beard, I don’t advocate voice training as a solution. I’m sure it does some good for a few individuals, but that isn’t really the problem. The only way this will change is if all of us, men and women, realise we’re more inclined to listen to men, and make a point of hearing women when they do speak.

After all, we might have something worth saying.

Advertisements