December 5, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

In the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, colleagues of Meryl Streep’s Thatcher tell her she will never become Conservative Party leader if she doesn’t do something to sound less shrill. She did just that, hiring a voice coach to lower the pitch of her voice, and went on to become the longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th Century. Now a study suggests that if women want to be better represented in politics, they should lower their voices too.

US scientists conducting research into the electability of political candidates have found that voters consistently prefer male and female candidates with lower pitched voices. “We studied men’s and women’s responses to male and female voices speaking the electorally relevant phrase, ‘I urge you to vote for me this November’,” explains research co-author Dr Casey Klofstad, Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami. “We also examined some of the reasons why participants selected a particular candidate: trustworthiness, confidence and strength.”

The results showed that for both male and female candidates the digitally altered lower-pitched voice was judged more electable than the alternative higher-pitched version. “In judgement of women, universally men and women view lower pitched female voices to be more trustworthy, more dominant and stronger,” said Klofstad.

But while a lower pitched voice may be more electable, for women this comes at the expense of their attractiveness to voters. “If you take what we have found in concert with other studies, qualities like strength, attractiveness, electability – all of these things for men go in the same direction,” explained Dr Klofstad. “Low pitch is strong, low is attractive, low is electable. Women face the unique difference that perception of their capacity to lead and their attractiveness go in opposite directions. For women high pitch is attractive, but low is trustworthy and confident; low is electable.”

The findings could partly account for why there are fewer women in high political positions. “We don’t want to say that we have somehow found a universal explanation for gender inequality in political roles,” said Dr Klofstad, “but voice pitch could be one of the factors.”

Many women might see this as an unfair disadvantage in a system already set against them but if they want to beat men at their own game, they may have to lower their tone.