In The Dropout, there is a scene where the CEO of the biotech start-up Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes (played by Amanda Seyfried), is standing in front of her bedroom mirror, repeating the words: “This is an inspiring step forward.” Every time she says it, her voice deepens, lower and lower, until she reaches the throaty baritone that we recognise as Holmes’. It’s awkward to watch as her mouth tenses around her vowels, her expression deadpan.
Former colleagues and acquaintances of Holmes have spoken about having noticed inconsistencies in her voice, noting that she would occasionally slip into what they believed was her natural higher pitch. Among these was Phyllis Gardener, a professor at Stanford University (from where Holmes dropped out in 2004), who told ABC Radio, “When she first came to me, she didn’t have a low voice.” Many viewers of The Dropout and fans of the podcast that preceded it have combed through recordings of Holmes talking, searching for moments of change – and they do seem to find them, for example in a 2005 podcast interview with NPR and in a filmed talk with Sal Khan 10 years later.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a woman has noticeably lowered the pitch of her voice to help her rise to a position of power within a field traditionally dominated by men. Famously, Margaret Thatcher had specific voice training in order to deepen her tone during her Prime Ministerial campaign in 1979, because she found that she was not being taken as seriously as her contemporaries. She won this election and two others that followed. Meanwhile, there has been speculation that the UK’s second female Prime Minister, Theresa May, similarly affected her voice when addressing her contemporaries.
A deep voice helps assert dominance and project power, and much like Holmes’ Steve Jobs-esque black turtlenecks, the way she speaks helped to reinforce the patter she was touting. Her $6.5 billion company Theranos promised to detect life-threatening medical conditions such as cancer and diabetes with a few drops of blood – no big needles necessary. But within a few years, she was exposed as a fake: the technology she was selling didn’t work, and she was convicted last year by a jury on four counts of fraud.
“We are still operating in a male world, especially when it comes to work, where men, who have deeper voices, have more gravitas,” says Alivia Rose, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy. “So, consciously or otherwise, women are lowering their voices to match them – to be seen as having gravitas and intelligence.” Rose notes that women have a long history of needing to control how they speak, for fear of being dismissed as “over-emotional”, because Sigmund Freud labelled women who raised their voices and spoke with a high pitch as “hysterical”. “It’s really ingrained in the psyche of gender,” she says. “If women keep their voices monitored, low, carefully articulated, you’re perceived as knowing what you’re talking about. As soon as you raise your voice, you’ve lost your audience.”
Indeed, research has shown that women who speak with deeper voices are typically taken more seriously. In 2019, an international team of psychologists, led by Piotr Sorokowski and Kasia Pisanski, analysed the speech of men and women when answering two questions: one that asked for directions and the other for career advice. When responding to the latter, a question that required specialist knowledge, they found that both men and women spoke in deeper voices than when answering the former – but, women lowered the pitch of their voices to a greater extent than men in order to assert their expertise. “A low-pitched voice is a signal of testosterone, and testosterone is a signal of dominance,” says Pisanski. “For women, there’s more of a reason to modulate the voice. Given our culture and the push for feminist rights, women are speaking in a lower pitch to exert these masculine features that seem to give benefits in our society – to sound like leaders, to sound more competent,” she says.
While many have criticised the way Holmes speaks as being yet another falsity in her Theranos scheme – some even going as far as saying it is evidence of her being a psychopath – Amanda Seyfried, who portrays her, is not among them. “If you’re trying to be taken seriously by all of these powerful men, what else do you do?” Seyfried said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month. “We all take on traits, subconsciously most of the time, to fit in and survive.” Holmes herself has denied that she consciously alters her voice in any way, but Pisanski notes that mechanistically, the only way you could permanently lower your voice to such a degree is to take a shot of testosterone. “Behaviourally, though, I think it could become more and more habitual,” she notes.
On the other side of the spectrum, Paris Hilton revealed in her 2020 tell-all documentary This is Paris that she has been deliberately speaking in a higher tone to her natural voice throughout her career. She explained that the baby-like timbre she has used for decades has been a way for her to hide her true self from the public. “This entire time, I have been playing a character, so the world has never truly known who I am,” she said. “The real me is someone who is actually brilliant. I’m not a dumb blonde, I’m just really good at pretending to be one.” And Hilton’s approach is backed up by cold hard science: researchers at American Scientist have found that higher female voices are associated with physical attractiveness. “From an evolutionary point of view, high pitch signifies youth,” says Pisanski. “Youth is a signal of fertility, so if you are wanting to project yourself as an attractive woman, a high pitch is the way to do that.” Rose adds, “The higher your voice is, the more vulnerable you’re perceived to be, like a little girl. It comes back to what is sellable to men.”
You can’t help but wonder, if Elizabeth Holmes or Paris Hilton were men, would we even be commenting on their voices? And would they have ever felt the need to alter their natural way of speaking? Ultimately, we can only hope that a time will come when people will listen to a woman’s voice with the same receptiveness as they do a man’s – and focus on what they’re saying instead of how they say it.