Angela Chaisson has a different speaking voice for every occasion. In the company of her friends, the criminal-defence lawyer is carefree, allowing her voice to naturally rise and fall. But in media interviews, she adopts the confident timbre of a broadcaster. And when she’s appearing before a judge or a jury, her speech becomes deep and sonorous. “I think this is common among many women in the legal profession,” says Chaisson. “We modulate our voice, mannerisms and appearance to be taken seriously.”
There’s now hard evidence to support that claim. In a new study, Yosh Halberstam, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, shows that female lawyers are, en masse, lowering their voices to sound more masculine.
To investigate this phenomenon, Halberstam used auto-dial software to collect the voicemail greetings of 40,000 lawyers at large corporate firms across the United States. He then analyzed each recording. Male lawyers, he found, spoke at a consistent frequency of 100 Hz. Female legal assistants — who often deliver the voicemail message on behalf of their superior — spoke at a higher frequency of 200 Hz. These results came as no surprise. But the data on female lawyers painted a more complicated picture. They toggled between a primary female voice mode (200 Hz) and a “secondary” mode (100 Hz) that overlapped with their male colleagues. In other words, they were — at least partially — mimicking the vocal frequency of their male colleagues.
Why would they do such a thing? “This is a male-dominated sector,” says Halberstam. “There’s a pressure to conform.”
Halberstam’s research suggests there are genuine rewards for women who speak in a deeper voice. In his data, some female partners spoke at a slightly lower frequency than female associates. The implication is that women who adopt a “male” speaking voice are more likely to make partner. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to modify your true identity at work. According to Halberstam, there is growing evidence that doing so exacts a cognitive and emotional toll.
The pressure to conform could even be driving women out of corporate law. In 2012, the Law Society of Ontario reported that 52 percent of women in private practice left their jobs in the preceding 20 years, compared with 35 percent of men. Chaisson, for her part, thinks that the pressure to conform helps to explain this exodus. “When you start letting those little parts of yourself go, the cumulative effect is devastating,” she says. “I have no doubt that women are leaving their jobs so that they can become a more authentic version of themselves.”
This story is from our Fall 2019 Issue.
Illustration by Sara Wong