Pitch perfect, but for broadcast?


Photo: Alan Levine / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Female journalists are often told to work on their pitch. Are male voices more preferred in broadcast?

Before Nancy Dickerson and Kate Couric, there was Elizabeth Cowell – the first woman to officially announce the news on the BBC’s television service, which aired on 31 August 1936. The British news team assessed her application on looks, but her ability to speak clearly for an audience opened another world for women in journalism.

Since the industry began women have fought for a place in broadcast journalism. While the presence of female presenters encourage other women to find their voice, there is now a common question faced by female students of media and communications: are male voices more preferred in their industry?

Tutors find themselves giving the same advice to female students every year: you need to work on your pitch. We are told that males voices seem more natural for the workplace, because our society attributes authority to deeper voices.

Even when senior writer for Sun-Herald Caitlin Fitzsimmons was a student, her tutors gave similar advice which demonstrates how long this stigma has been around

“We were studying broadcast journalism and we were told a lower voice was a must if we were to forge a career in radio and television, because audiences perceived deep voices to be more authoritative,” Ms Fitzsimmons says.

Similarly, my colleagues and I were told this only a few weeks ago in our advanced journalism class. I turned to my other females classmates with confusion, wondering why I’d never realised this before. Moments in my first year started to make sense, with teachers telling male students that their voices are excellent for radio, whilst I have to put a lot more effort to reach the same level.

Research coordinator and voice clinician from La Trobe University Sterling Quinn understands why women in my position have been told that we need to work harder for television and radio.

There is another explanation, besides the association of males voices with authority, Mx Quinn explains.

“A voice expert could tell you that yes, cisgender male speakers typically have lower pitches, characterised by x/y/z acoustic parameters. However, if you are asking how and why people respond to this kind of voice than you are talking about more than just voice science,” they say.

A major point Mx Quinn makes is about the audience and what they want to hear; audiences tend to gravitate towards male speakers, as western culture has historically valued masculinity over femininity.

“If you take the example of a hypothetical study in which it’s found that that lower pitched voices are perceived as more trustworthy, you wouldn’t stop with the conclusion ‘oh, there must be something inherent about a low average speaking Hz that people find inherently trustworthy.”

To discover whether perception plays a part, researchers from the Royal Society in 2012 recorded men and women stating, “I urge you to vote for me this November.” For each recording, there was a lower-pitched and high-pitched version from both men and women. Afterwards, they were asked to make a choice in which recording they preferred; the results showed that the lower pitch was preferable when it comes to both male and female leaders.

In 2017, a group of psychologists conducted a study to examine if gender and vocal characteristics across different social contexts influences an audience. Men and women were given 12 items to listen to with four different contexts. The end results found that male voices with a higher pitch were perceived as more trustworthy in general.

“The context of trust and the sex of speaker both changed how voice pitch affected perceived trustworthiness,” the study authors noted.

The study showed that women’s voices with a lower pitch were found to be more trustworthy. This enforces that idea that listeners still associate lower pitch with authority and trust, irrespective of gender.

Voices in a lower pitch seem to win over an audience days, but listeners are far more used to hearing and watching men on the news. Studies of news coverage from across the world show that more than 70 percent of people hear and watch men on the news, while women make up less than 30 percent of the industry.

Even in non-media contexts, women in the past have had to lower their pitch to connect with their audience and to meet their expectations. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher took actual classes in the 1970s to ensure that her voice came across as deeper.

It seems that women everywhere, regardless of their industry, has constantly been told that their voices need to have a lower pitch, even though they’ll also be told not to make their voices too much lowers

“Many women could find themselves in double bind – deemed unattractive and less likeable if they deepen their voice, or too shrill if they don’t,” Fitzsimmons tells The Sydney Morning Herald.

Hopefully for emerging journalists this stigma becomes less prominent. Although some studies in psychology reveal that a women’s pitch does not come across as trustworthy, increasing female voices in the media is one way to change that.

Pam Kiriakidis is a third-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her twitter @pam_kiriakidis