How The Sound Of Your Voice Affects Your Career — Especially As A Black Woman

Has anyone ever told you, “You don’t sound Black?” It’s happened to me more times than I can count. And, usually, the person saying it means it as a compliment, though I never take it as such. For me, my question is always “What does Black sound like?”

According to a new study published in Forbes, the sound of your voice can actually hold you back in your career–especially if you are a Black woman. A professor at Northwestern University conducted the study of 75 diverse students, 57 of whom were women and 18 men, first asking them to rate leadership qualities which they ranked in the following order: “verbal communication; decision-making; inspiring others; focus on getting things done; ability to adapt quickly to situations; managing others; ability to think of creative, innovative solutions; delegating; sensitivity to others’ concerns; getting the most out of employees; and growing the organization,” reported Forbes.

Each student then “listened to audio of a voice reading a script of a company leader speaking (to an employee). Each student was randomly assigned to hear only one voice reading the exact same script. Though the participants were not given any information about the leaders (aka, the voices), the same script was read by one of the following: a white man, a white woman, a Black man or a Black woman,” reported Forbes.

Guess who received the highest scores on Leadership qualities? White males. “The black male voice scored the next highest, followed by the white woman’s voice, then the Black woman’s voice,” reported Forbes.

What the study found was that the male respondents had an unwillingness to work for female leaders, no matter how high the female’s ranked on leadership skills.

“Women’s voices in particular can be considered shrill — Hillary Clinton was on the receiving end of that criticism during the contentious US presidential elections and the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons with a speech coach in order to develop a lower pitch to sound more authoritative,” reported Forbes.

Regarding the Black female voice, one student wrote naively about her leadership qualities: “She shuts down the employee’s ideas without cause and without alternative solutions. Abrasive/rude — not in an efficient way. Demands things of/threatens the customer. Seems possibly effective in the moment but not conducive to a long-term relationship.”

That may not come as a shock to you as a Black woman in the workplace. We know all too well about the biases that lead us to be labeled angry Black women when we’re simply being assertive leaders. One good thing Forbes pointed out, though, is that “we tend to dampen our implicit biases when told about them.” So don’t feel bad when calling out employers or co-workers for their discrimination; that’s the only way they’ll eventually do better.