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Women should not have to lower tone to get their voices heard


Strong voice: Malala Yousafzai

Strong voice: Malala Yousafzai

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Strong voice: Malala Yousafzai

When I was 29 I got a job as a BBC correspondent. In the first week in the job I was taken into a radio studio at Broadcasting House and advised that I should try making my voice lower.

Oh, I knew all about my subject (arts) - at least I thought I did - but the problem was this: would I convey enough authority in what I said when I was saying it?

After a session or two with the lovely radio newsreader Peter Donaldson I suspect my voice remained pretty much the same, although I probably slowed my delivery down a bit.

But in those days the received opinion about pitch was the same as that about pronunciation: in other words, the more of it the better.

If you were a woman in charge of a microphone, those with lower voices were deemed as "better". Anna Ford, for example. Not Julie Burchill.

According to the Today programme, which devoted eight minutes to the issue this week, the vocal landscape is still very much the same. Women should speak slower and at a lower pitch, opined Lady Butler-Sloss, who was guest editor for the day.

When she joined the Bar, she said, one had to speak like a chap in order to be taken seriously. That's what her brother (Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General) told her at least.

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She used to practise in front of the mirror at home. There then followed a rather predictable chat with a voice coach, following which we heard a clip from Parliament where Theresa May (low, Tory) was being rather expertly grilled by Yvette Cooper (high, Labour).

Can I suggest (in quite a high voice) that the guest editor for the Today programme was showing her age, and not in an authoritative way, but an out-of-touch way.

As with received pronunciation, the adherence to which has quietly been abandoned across the airwaves, not many people seem to be much bothered about the tone in which women speak these days. Because hearing a woman speaking in public isn't remarkable.

There are enough socially prominent women for a variety of tones and accents to be heard, frequently. Of course, when in public, you should speak slowly and clearly, but that goes for anyone.

Gone are the days when women had to dress in masculine-style clothes or speak in a manly tone to be taken seriously.

I think this is not only to do with more women gaining positions of prominence, but also an insistence by women - a wide group of women across the world, women living in places where they have not historically been allowed to speak out - about telling their story and insisting that their voices be heard. No matter what the pitch.

Who cares whether Malala Yousafzai has a high or a low voice? The activist for female education and youngest-ever Nobel laureate has made the whole world listen.

Equally, the campaigners for female equality in India have forced their issues on to a global consciousness without seeming to worry overtly about pitch or the lack of it. They have authority. As well as brains, bravery and conviction. End of.

Last year was claimed by many as the Year of the Woman; where women across the world have protested against a variety of crucial gender-related issues, be it education denial, arranged marriages, historic sexual abuse, low pay or misogynist violence.

I think that continuing to discuss whether women should work to lower their voices in order to be taken seriously is about as interesting as questioning whether women should speak in public or wear trousers in the boardroom.

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