Elizabeth Holmes and the Audacity of Women’s Voices

Everyone has an opinion about how women should speak, but no one is willing to look at the consequences.

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By now we’ve all heard the story: a 19-year old Stanford dropout dupes a pantheon of big-money investors into giving billions to her phony blood-testing company, Theranos. After a whirlwind of accolades, features, and snuggle time with Oprah, Holmes’ deception is unmasked by a whistleblower in her own company, and she is indicted by a federal grand jury on twelve separate counts of fraud. Currently awaiting sentencing, she is out of the public eye but very much in the public imagination, due in large part to HBO’s documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” that was just released a few days ago. Among Holmes’ fascinating characteristics, she apparently pitched her speaking voice down into a very low range, the better to appear authoritative when convincing people that her work was legit. In my work as a professional voice coach specializing in strengthening women’s voices in the workplace, this is the kind of thing that I find infuriating. Not because there is anything inherently wrong with a woman dropping her voice, but because our entire society feels entitled to comment on this behavior, and to add it to the pile of judgement and condemnation of Holmes herself.

To be clear: in no way am I endorsing Holmes’ crimes. What she did was wrong, and there are serious consequences to her actions that continue to unfold. She should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Yet altering one’s voice is not a crime, and should not be regarded as such. Women, especially, need the freedom to experiment, play and discover our full voice, because we are societally conditioned to make our voice (and our bodies, opinions, and careers) smaller than those of men. Unfortunately society does not allow us to do so.

Here are two questions I put to every group of women that I coach: “Please raise your hand if you’ve ever been told that your voice is too high and feminine?” Inevitably about 50% of their hands go up. “Now raise it if you’ve been told that your voice is too low and masculine?” Then the other 50%. See the problem?? We are constantly being told how to be women. Either we are speaking too high (ie: girlish, feminine, and lacking in authority) or too low (ie mannish, masculine, and threatening). We can’t win. This is why, when I’m coaching women’s voices, I also coach them to push back against gendered feedback. It’s important to note that we can and should be listening for valuable feedback about our voices that addresses things like volume, clarity, pacing and content. But anything with gender attached to it can go right into the trash.

By the way, there are extraordinary women in the public eye right now whose voices cannot be called low or masculine by any stretch of the imagination. Kirsten Gilibrand comes immediately to mind. The US senator just announced her campaign for presidency, and her voice, in its natural (higher) pitch, radiates presence, power and authority. If she became president she might actually reset our cultural belief that a low/masculine range is the default setting for projecting power. Wouldn’t that be something!

As I’ve said numerous times: women’s voices are always about women’s power: how we feel about our power, how we broadcast our power to the material world, and how the world responds to that power. Holme’s chose to use her power for evil instead of good. But all women deserve to experiment, play, and discover our voices, and our power, on our own terms. 

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