The instructor framed her advice as helpful. I was enrolled in an online course this past summer to help me prepare to deliver my fall classes entirely online.
Our first assignment was to teach our colleagues something about online learning. I recorded a PowerPoint presentation, complete with audio commentary about a new learning tool, and uploaded it to our course website for peer and instructor feedback.
A full page of comments arrived a few days later. Sandwiched between comments about the aesthetic of my slides (“pleasing”) and the speed at which I responded to faculty comments (“prompt”), the instructor directed me to carefully consider my voice. I learned that the instrument I routinely rely upon to deliver my ideas to students and colleagues, often without any thought, might be a problem in this new learning environment, where the recorded voice often becomes the primary mechanism of course delivery.
My instructor assured me that it wasn’t really about my gender, but more about how students learn. She advised that my voice, both in tone and volume, was “intimate” – an odd word choice, and certainly not what I had imagined when I carefully outlined the limitations of a student wiki assignment. She continued, explaining that this style might be my “hallmark,” but it would decrease my students’ confidence in me and in the quality of my material.
She stated, “I realize there’s a whole separate discussion to be had about people’s reaction to female versus male voices, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here.”
It seemed that learners just don’t learn well from feminine-sounding voices, regardless of gender. She advised me to consider “alternative,” presumably unvoiced or differently voiced, ways of presenting my materials.
The act of asking a professor to reconsider if and how they voice their course materials laid bare what scholars have otherwise carefully documented: there is an important link between voice and power. Voice researcher Cate Madill argues, “A lower pitch is perceived almost universally as the speaker (male or female) having more authority and/or greater status.”
She notes that women’s voices have become deeper since the 1950s, with the increased presence of women in the labour force. Most famously, many note that Margaret Thatcher’s voice changed dramatically in a short time. Anna Karpf claims that Thatcher’s (male) advisors pressured her to lower her voice, potentially resulting in permanent damage to her vocal cords.
According to one New Yorker article, audio technology exacerbated the stereotype of the “shrill” female voice beginning in the early 20th century. Author Tina Tallon documents the challenges for women in politics today, and notes that everything from the microphone to the radio frequencies historically worked to marginalize women’s voices, making them sound “piercing or harsh.”
A quick online examination shows that picking the right voice to market your company is important for business branding. One astute marketing company advises, “Female voices will likely go better with styles that are friendly, soft, and cheerful, and male voices will likely match styles that are announcer-like and authoritative.” Academic scholarship supports this notion; social psychologists have found that research participants perceived feminine voices, regardless of gender, as more compassionate but less competent than masculine voices.
Likewise, researchers have discovered that people’s understandings of “non-standard” accents reflect linguistic biases. For example, marketing professor Ze Wang’s team found that Americans viewed British accents favourably, but not Indian ones. And in the U.K., polling suggested that British people considered “flawless received pronunciation (RP)” – or what is commonly known as the “Queen’s English” – more trustworthy than working-class accents.
As research on student teaching evaluations has consistently pointed out, student learners’ understandings of their professor’s performance reflect gender and race biases, and rarely reflect student learning. Given that much of this research was conducted using online courses, it seems evident that our voices, like our bodies, matter.
As we adjust how we teach this fall, I want to stridently disagree with my online course instructor. We need to strongly reject a consumer model of education that caters to the student desires, and instead focus on an ethic of student needs. We must ask what good learning looks like, while acknowledging that student preferences should not be a strict guide for us. We need to consider the wider implications of the ways we structure and teach our courses. We need to reject models of good teaching that metaphorically and literally silence our working-class, non-white, immigrant, queer, and feminine-voiced colleagues.
We cannot properly address systemic sexism, homophobia, classism and racism by silencing those who sound different from those whom students’ biases peg as competent and trustworthy. The voices of feminine-sounding speakers provide an important disruption to common-sense ideas that these speakers are less competent than their masculine-sounding colleagues. Similarly, instructors speaking in a wide variety of accents disrupt the notion that anyone is less authoritative or knowledgeable because they are speaking in something other than a General American English or RP accent. The more students hear these voices, the better the chances that professors and instructors can challenge these prejudices. This in and of itself is one of the most important lessons we can teach in our classrooms.
Kristi Allain is an associate professor in the department of sociology at St. Thomas University.