We don't tend to think of people's voices as being a major factor when it comes to workplace discrimination—their skin color or gender, sure. But voices?
New research finds that lesbians and gay men may routinely be excluded from top jobs on the basis of how they sound. Sound too "gay," and you may end up being passed over for promotion. But here's the thing—it's only men discriminating against their perceived LGBTQ colleagues. Women, blessed be, don't exhibit the same systematic bias.
A research team at the University of Surrey played recordings of gay and heterosexual men and women to 40 heterosexual men. Study participants were also shown photographs of the speakers, but not told about their sexual orientation. After hearing the voice clip and seeing a photograph of the speaker, participants were asked what monthly salary they would award them in a fictional corporate executive job.
"The participants had minimal information about the candidates," explains lead author Dr. Fabio Fasoli. "Just a short audio file saying, 'Hello, I'm Mark, I'm 32 years old.' Then we'd manipulate the voice electronically, so that half sounded [stereotypically] straight, and half sounded gay. The participant didn't know anything about the actual sexual orientation of the person, they were only exposed to a voice commonly perceived as gay or straight sounding."
I ask Dr. Fasoli how you quantify whether a voice is gay or straight sounding. "This was based on previous research we'd done in which we asked people to categorize sexual orientation based on voice samples," he responds. Obviously, Fasoli confirms, we're not able to judge sexual orientation correctly from voices. But a stereotype persists—of gay men sounding feminine, and lesbian women sounding huskier, or more masculine.
I'm intrigued by the fact that people tend to view low-sounding voices on women as indicative of them being gay, and I press Fasoli for more detail. "It's an interesting stereotype," he acknowledges, "but it's clear there are no actual differences in pitches between gay and straight people."
"We found that heterosexual men were less likely to choose the gay-sounding speaker over the straight one," Fasoli explains. "It could be that they preferred to interact with the straight-sounding person, or that they wanted to avoid the gay-sounding one—the results can be interpreted both ways."
When they conducted the same study using heterosexual women, no pattern was seen. "Women didn't show any preference for one or the other speaker," Fasoli confirms.
Fasoli hopes his research will help broaden our understanding of all the different garbs workplace discrimination might take. "We hope on the more practical level," he confirms, "people will become aware that there's a variety of different voices within gay and straight people, so that what we normally view as a gay voice is actually based on a stereotype we have."