I have been very public in my advocacy for women and girls. In 2012, I published a book titled Dare, Dream, Do with the express purpose of inspiring women to dream — to believe that it is our birthright. In 2013, I co-founded Forty Women OVER 40 to Watch in order to spotlight women who are reinventing and disrupting. Then in 2014, I co-founded the Springboard Fund to invest in women-led businesses. I’ve written many pieces for Harvard Business Review designed to help women get ahead at work.
I am woman. Hear me roar.
But something strange happened when my publisher, Bibliomotion, presented me with 11 possible Audible narrators for my second business book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. My knee-jerk response was to choose a man.
Research and experience offer an explanation. Across industries, the default vocal setting is male. Voiceovers for movie trailers are 99% male. Research suggests both men and women tend to trust male voices more — particularly deep, authoritative ones. (James Earl Jones, anyone?) Even when we’re rating female voices, we tend to prefer lower-pitched ones, especially for leadership positions, apparently assuming the owners of such voices will be more trustworthy, more competent, and stronger.
If I wanted people to buy my book – and of course, I did – I had to confront the reality that both men and women are more likely to part with their money when the voice doing the asking is male. My experience raising money for a fund majority-owned by men (Disruptive Innovation Fund) versus one dominated by women (Springboard) bears this out, but there’s also a fair amount of academic research in this area. For instance, a series of experiments conducted by researchers from Harvard, Wharton, and MIT found that male entrepreneurs were more likely to receive funding from investors. In one of the experiments, study subjects watched pitch videos narrated by either a man or a woman. (The content of the videos was identical.) When asked to guess which pitch had gotten funding, 68% of the subjects preferred the male-narrated pitches – regardless of their own gender.
There is an exception, sort of. When it comes to service, both sexes prefer women. That’s one reason robotic voices like those on your GPS or Siri tend to be female. When automakers first installed automated voice prompts in cars decades ago, their consumer research found that people overwhelmingly preferred female voices to male ones. Scientific studies have shown that people generally find women’s voices more pleasing than men’s. One study even found fetuses reacted to the sound of their mother’s voice but had no distinct reaction to their father’s voice. Perhaps that’s because the idea of service aligns with stereotypes about femininity. When it’s a voice attending to our needs, we want it to be female. When it’s a voice persuading us or conveying expertise, we want it to be male.
So who can blame me for automatically going for a male narrator? What if choosing a female narrator cut my audiobook sales by two-thirds? The data suggested that a male voice would sell my book better – and make it sound more authoritative and trustworthy.
But I had to ask myself: Was my decision based purely on logic, or was my own bias talking back to me? Which led to an even harder question: “Do I put more stock in men’s voices and ideas than women’s, even my own?”
You sometimes have to take a step back to grow. Despite my initial gut reaction, I chose a woman narrator. In retrospect, there was no other real choice. If I’m telling my readers to dare, dream, and disrupt the status quo, then I have to put principle before potential profit. I have to confront my own hidden biases head-on: women’s voices must be heard, starting with my own.
Originally published at Harvard Business Review