May 21st, 2013 | 6:00 am

The Effect of Voice Pitch on Women’s Career Advancement

filed under Office Politics

iStock_000017490863XSmallBy Michelle Clark (Keene, New Hampshire)

What does the sound of your voice have to do with your level of corporate success? Apparently a lot, according to “Voice pitch and the labor market success of male chief executive officers,” a research paper recently published by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Evolution and Human Behavior. The authors, William J. Mayew and Mohan Venkatachalam of Duke, and Christopher A. Parsons of U.C. San Diego, present strong evidence that male CEOs who possess a deeper vocal range are more likely to work for larger companies, enjoy a longer tenure, and make more money.

While this study does not explicitly analyze how the vocal pitch effect impacts professional women in a corporate setting, a solid argument can be built around the fact that female executives might find themselves at a disadvantage because of a supposedly inferior biological trait. But, this is not the message that should be taken away from the paper, suggests author and Duke Professor Bill Mayew.

“This can be an empowerment tool for women in the sense that if we can understand what characteristics matter, the next step to is to look at why they matter, and when do they matter most,” says Mayew. “Then you can start to think about tailoring them. For example if you are a female sitting in the boardroom, and you cannot control your voice pitch, what are the other things you can do in terms of getting your voice heard?”

As one of the first research studies to emerge on the topic of how evolutionary and biological traits affect how quickly an executive ascends the corporate ladder, this paper shifts the focus from the common factors of education and experience to intangible traits that are more difficult to measure, such as voice pitch. By learning what factors might play a role in determining who gets chosen for senior level positions within large corporations, women can focus on displaying their own unique set of strengths.

Tip of the Iceberg

“Voice pitch and the labor market success of male chief executive officers” only scrapes the surface of the fascinating topic of evolutionary characteristics and their impact on the corporate world. By opening up this dialogue, researchers hope to determine what it is that makes certain people succeed more than others with similar job-related credentials. Furthermore, future research can identify in which industries we tend to see more dominant leaders emerge versus industries in which less dominant features in a leader are more favorable.

Similar studies have been conducted in the political arena lending support to the finding that voters prefer male candidates with deeper voices over average toned males and females, but the Duke study is one of the first of its kind to correlate voice and professional advancement. Mayew says, “There are situations where higher pitched voices are needed. For example, if you want to foster innovation, having a dominant personality is not very good for having people approach you with ideas. This speaks to the fact that being a dominant leader might not be beneficial in all settings.”

When discussing the findings of the paper, Mayew often refers to Ann Taylor CEO, Kay Krill, who recently stated in an interview with Forbes that she attributes much of her personal success to the fact that she is so approachable and people feel comfortable presenting their ideas to her.

The Global Implication

As far as applying this research on a global scale, Mayew says they don’t really know the full impact at this point. “There are different cultural norms in some societies where dominance is almost frowned upon in leaders. If that’s the case, you might expect for leaders to be more soft spoken in those settings. Which of course will have an impact on women.”

The one thing we do know, according to Mayew, is that, “Dominance features in a leader are important – male or female.” Defining exactly what those features are and how their impact in any given situation is the next challenge for researchers. Mayew says, “We know now that the person matters. Now, we have to figure out what about the person matters.” For female executives, this can certainly be an opportunity to determine what intangibles they bring to the table and how to apply them toward career advancement.

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