Skip to Content Skip to Main Menu

Faculty of Arts & Science

Arts & Science News

Voice at work: New research explores voice frequencies in the workplace

Do you sometimes wonder whether you are using your “real” voice? Or find yourself speculating about whether your voice sounds “right” for the conversation at hand?

Professor Yosh Halberstam

Yosh Halberstam’s research is the first large-scale study of voice in the context of work. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

If you are part of a minority group in a given setting, a growing body of anecdotal and popular culture evidence suggests that this is far from uncommon.

However, until the release of a new paper from the University of Toronto, there have been no large-scale studies of voice in the context of work. New research studying the voice frequencies of lawyers at the top 100 U.S. law firms – which are all male-dominated – finds a striking pattern. Across 40,000 lawyers at these firms, the study finds that female lawyers encode part of their voicemail greetings using a lower “male” frequency of 100 Hz, even while the majority of their greeting uses the higher “female” frequency of 200 Hz. No such “codeswitching” between voice frequencies was observed among female assistants – who sometimes record greetings on behalf of lawyers – or the male lawyers at the firms.

My work on voice and labour market discrimination is motivated by a simple question: can we learn something about an individual’s well-being at work from measures of her voice?

“We have a lot of control over voice,” said Yosh Halberstam, assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Economics and the lead author of the study. “My work on voice and labour market discrimination is motivated by a simple question: can we learn something about an individual’s well-being at work from measures of her voice?”

Codeswitching is a theory that originated in the field of linguistics and suggests that a member of an out-group – that is, the minority in a given setting – may switch between two or more languages in a single span of communication. A hallmark of codeswitching is that it preserves the syntax and phonology of each underlying language. There is no compromise or hybrid language – there is simply switching between the two. But the possibility that codeswitching could be occurring in the realm of voice rather than natural language has not been explored before Halberstam’s study.

“There are a lot of anecdotes about out-group members who feel pressure to speak a certain way and if they don’t, they seem to be penalized, or they simply sense that they’re treated differently because of their voice,” said Halberstam.

The concept of codeswitching has been extended in the popular media to describe a behaviour that members of the out-group use to signal their recognition of and deference to in-group norms and possibly to cope with and mitigate the structural disadvantages they perceive.

Halberstam recorded and analyzed voicemail greetings from more than 40,000 lawyers working at the top-ranked “Vault 100” law firms in the United States.

When it came to male lawyers – the dominant group in law firms – Halberstam found that their voice frequencies were strongly unimodal – meaning that they were centered around one frequency – at 100 Hz.

When he analyzed the voicemail greetings recorded by female assistants – another in-group, as assistants in law firms are most commonly women – he also found a unimodal distribution centred around 200 Hz.

But it was the voice frequency modes of female lawyers – specifically female associates – that surprised him.

Initially I wasn’t thinking about codeswitching. I expected to find female lawyers sounding more like their male lawyer peers because of the need to conform to market norms. But when I analyzed the data, I saw something more complicated.

“Initially I wasn’t thinking about codeswitching,” said Halberstam. “I expected to find female lawyers sounding more like their male lawyer peers because of the need to conform to market norms. But when I analyzed the data, I saw something more complicated and it seemed to connect to the theory of codeswitching that has emerged within linguistics.”

Rather than a unimodal frequency of 200 Hz, Halberstam found that even within a three-second voicemail greeting, female lawyers used a secondary voice frequency mode of 100 Hz – the same frequency around which male lawyers centered.

Halberstam says this may be reflective of the environment in which female lawyers at the top firms work. Moreover, he says, “to the extent that voice modulation requires effort, female lawyers may be at a disadvantage relative to male lawyers.”

Halberstam points out that his findings are not driven by vocal fry, a characteristic observed among young female professionals. Vocal fry, he explains, is a series of low frequency glottal pulses, which typically occurs at the end of a sentence. These pulses average 50 Hz for both males and females and occupy a distinct phonation register from the one his study captures.

But for Halberstam this data is only the start.

He is collecting a second wave of data focusing specifically on lawyers who have left the law firm sector or moved to a different law firm since the data was collected in January 2018.

“This is a very male-dominated sector,” said Halberstam. “If you leave the sector, you might be facing a different environment.” Halberstam’s second wave of voicemails will be able to test the hypothesis that female lawyers who move to a less male-dominated sector will exhibit less codeswitching, perhaps because they face less pressure to conform.

As for what firms can do to combat women feeling the need to codeswitch, Halberstam hopes his research can document and raise awareness about the range of efforts — including those that are inaudible to the naked ear — that members of outgroups may need to make to “fit in.”  “Ultimately,” he says, “any quest for equity at work will fall short if it does not acknowledge and take into account the range of invisible efforts made by members of out-groups that may be unfathomable to the in-group.”