“Vocal Fry” Presents New Challenge for Women at Work

If you’ve noticed a recent uptick in the number of people speaking with what sounds like a California drawl, you’re not alone.

It’s called “vocal fry,” or “creaky voice,” and while some men and women speak that way naturally, its prominence in celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel and Kim Kardashian is influencing more and more women to consciously alter their voices in a similar way.

A recent study found this trend may actually be detrimental, however: The Washington Post reports that women who speak with vocal fry come off as “less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive and less hireable,” according to a new study by researchers at Duke University.

People with creaky voices were “perceived negatively in both sexes, by both sexes, regardless of the age of the listener,” the study found. But the consequences were worse for women, who, when speaking with vocal fry, were found to be far less hireable than men who spoke creakily.

There are many reasons women speak with vocal fry. For some, it’s just natural, like a regional accent or other voice quirk: Another famous vocal frier is former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who has a distinctly deep and creaky voice. Others are copying celebrities’ voices, as they would a fashion trend. However it’s achieved, the researchers vehemently recommend that “young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions.”

This study is the latest in a long line of research about women’s voices. Most famous was the discussion surrounding the so-called “Valley girl lift,” the pattern of ending sentences with an upward shift in tone (as if asking a question) while peppering one’s speech with the word “like.” You might remember it from the movie Clueless, Moon Zappa’s famous song “Valley Girl,” or from simply existing in the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s been criticized for how it makes women sound in professional settings. “I find that turning declarative statements into questions reveals an unexplainable lack of confidence in one’s opinions and a radical uncertainty about one’s place in the world,” writes Laurie Fendrich in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Fendrich is spot-on: Upspeaking, as it’s also called, has been shown to actually impact the self-esteem of women and girls. As Lisa Collins writes, “When girls aren’t encouraged to find and use their voices, they can believe what they think or feel doesn’t matter.”

While the body of research on Valley girl lift is relatively well-developed, the same can’t be said for the more recent phenomenon of vocal fry. We don’t know how adopting creaky voice affects a woman’s self-esteem. But what we can say about it, based on this new evidence, is that women with naturally creaky voices are automatically disadvantaged in the workforce from the second they open their mouths. And for the increasing number of women who are simply following a trend by choosing to employ creaky voice, they’re in a double bind: What celebrity culture is telling them is attractive will actually hurt their chances of workplace success.

It’s not unreasonable for women or men to consciously change their voices to boost their opportunities in certain professions. Newscasters try to develop regionally neutral accents to appeal to the maximum number of viewers in their local audience; nearly all actors learn how to project their voices for theater work, and often adopt accents to play different characters.

But it’s deeply problematic if the accepted standard of professionalism is so strongly male that women can’t even speak in their natural voices. Women have already struggled long and hard against workplace barriers; we shouldn’t have to work at sounding like we belong there if we’re perfectly qualified for the job.

Instead of following various vocal trends, including those that may be harmful (vocal fry can actually be an irritant to your throat), women should strive to sound as confident and self-assured as possible, without affectation. They shouldn’t adopt fads or kowtow to a societal bias that says it takes sounding manly to be successful at work.

It took women decades to even find their voices in the workplace. It’s time to shed the old biases of the institution and speak up—in whatever way is most natural.

Photo courtesy “Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market,” by Anderson et al, in PLoS ONE.




Robin Jones Kerr is a journalism major and women’s studies minor at George Washington University, and an intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.