I Get Why Elizabeth Holmes Lowers Her Voice — Because I Do It Too
“I wouldn’t fault any woman for trying to change herself in order to fit into a very unforgiving system; I would fault the system.”
From HBO’s scathing documentary,The Inventor, to the newly announced Hulu series starring Kate McKinnon, producers are lining up to pick apart disgraced billionaire Elizabeth Holmes. There’s a lot to dislike about the Silicon Valley wunderkind whose miracle biotech company, Theranos, was found to be “a massive fraud.” There’s her blatant disregard for patients’ safety, her arrogance as she pulled the wool over the eyes of her investors and employees, the privileged perch from which she preached about the importance of women in STEM while undermining their very credibility, just to name a few. But for me, her voice — that deep baritone she’s been accused of faking to sound more authoritative — isn’t one of them. That’s because I’ve been doing the same thing at work for years.
I landed my first job at a major newsroom in D.C. in 2011 armed with an earnest desire to live that old journalism-school cliche of being “the voice of the voiceless.” Except that no one liked my voice. A well-respected male colleague told me it was “better suited to reading bedtime stories than the news.” Other men told me I sounded sing-songy and lacked “gravitas.” At the time, I thought of my voice like the color of my eyes: something inherently part of me — and it just happened to be inherently wrong.
A kind, experienced female correspondent offered to sit with me and do voice training exercises. I dutifully practiced my “head voice” (closing off one ear with your finger so you can hear how you sound), marked up my scripts with which words to emphasize, and counted down to deepen my voice a little before speaking. But still, I wasn’t good enough. I ended up being passed over for on-air opportunities, instead writing scripts and having to give them to older male colleagues to voice.
Then came a move to New York for an on-air job. I was thrilled and determined to read my own work this time. But soon enough, an older male producer told me he didn’t like my voice. I asked him to point out what was wrong; he was vague and told me I should listen to how the male correspondents spoke. So I dropped my voice a few registers and read my scripts like a man, and suddenly, no one complained anymore. I kept doing it. I landed more work. To me, turning my throaty, warm voice into a smoother, lower, more assertive tone was part of the persona I put on while working in TV, just like the false eyelashes, heavy foundation, and angled bob a newscaster job so often requires.
Too often, when men say they don’t like a woman, it’s her voice they zero in on (while campaigning, Donald Trump complained that Hillary was “shrill”; Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears and other female celebs have been slammed for their vocal fry). “It’s almost like we’ve been struggling since the beginning of time to have a voice men will find pleasing and not annoying,” says comedian Sarah Cooper, author of How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings. “There’s this idea that women with deeper voices are more trustworthy, they seem more in control, more male-like. But then if your voice is too deep, you kind of seem gruff or not as feminine, and men might have a problem with that, too.”
Researchers in Canada found that while “listeners were more trusting of higher-pitched female voices in economic and mate-poaching contexts,” they “trusted lower-pitched female voices more in general.” There’s also the fact that since the gramophone and the phonograph, recording technology has largely been designed with the male voice in mind and can sometimes distort female voices, according to researchers at UC Berkeley. So not only was I not sounding “right,” but I may not have been sounding “good.”
While it’s easy to pick apart Holmes’ deep voice now that she’s been rumbled, coupled with her Steve Jobsian uniform of black turtlenecks and slacks, “she basically created this persona that was based on a lot of these ideas of ‘Here’s what a successful entrepreneur looks like,’” Cooper says. “And it worked.” (Holmes' family members have disputed accusations that her voice is faked.) At its height, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, making Holmes the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire (since usurped by Kylie Jenner), and she had some of the most powerful people in tech and politics on her board and singing her praises. Holmes is now facing fraud charges — to which she has pleaded not guilty — and faces up to 20 years in prison.
“She is like the Fyre Festival of Silicon Valley,” Cooper says of the ongoing fascination with Holmes’ fall from grace. “I think women, we often have this voice in our head that’s like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good enough, or I don’t think I’m ready, or I don’t know if I should say this.’ Stop doing that to yourself, because men aren’t doing that to themselves. They’re just putting whatever they want out there. And I think Elizabeth Holmes was just like, ‘whatever, I have this black turtleneck and this voice and I’m going to do it,’ and she didn't have the best intentions, but it kind of worked.”
Cooper, who once worked for big tech firms like Google and Yahoo, says while she doesn’t defend Holmes’ actions, her decision to change her voice and her image to what Silicon Valley’s (largely male) elite expected harkens back to “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” She says, “I wouldn’t fault any woman for trying to change herself in order to fit into a very unforgiving system; I would fault the system more.”
Lauren Simmons, 24, knows what it’s like to try to fit into an unforgiving system. She was once called the “Lone Woman of Wall Street,” and was the youngest and only full-time female equity trader at the New York Stock Exchange before she left in 2018, and only the second African-American female trader in its history. After passing the floor brokers’ test and earning her badge, Simmons says she saw firsthand some of the Exchange’s boys’ club behaviors, saying she had to ask colleagues not to refer to women as “broads,” and she intentionally bucked the pressure to dress like the men.
“My first month on the trading floor, it was definitely suggested that I shouldn’t wear dresses or heels if I wanted to be taken more seriously,” Simmons says. “But I’m very feminine, so I wore my dresses and heels all the time.”
She also dealt with the fact that, in a business where billions can be traded in seconds — and taking a break can break a major deal — the women’s bathroom was much farther from the trading floor than the men’s. She says the men would tell her not to wear heels; "I’d say, ‘If I had on flats, the restroom would still be far away. It doesn’t make a difference.’”
Although Simmons, who has since left the securities firm where she worked, says that women of color are “judged more, and in some capacity, conform more,” it was her gender rather than her race that she felt people had antiquated ideas about. “My problems, if I had any, on the trading floor never had to do with my race, it strictly had to do with me being a woman. It’s not as if they respected me less because I was black, they respected me less because I was a woman, period.” Everyone on the trading floor wears the same blazer, which isn't even available in women's sizes. “There’s no way anyone’s going to take me seriously if I look like I have on my dad’s jacket," Simmons recalls having to explain to her boss.
And while adopting a more masculine habits — a deeper voice, a firmer handshake or, conversely, more stereotypically feminine attributes — can be a workplace survival mechanism for women in the short-term, Cooper says, “it does hurt women in the long run, because the more women change themselves, the more similar women in the next generation also have to change themselves.”
“Women accept sexism, so they change themselves to prepare for that sexism. They do things like adding all these emojis and exclamation points in their emails, or they’re always smiling, or they never show emotion. They do all these things to change themselves and all of a sudden, that becomes the thing that the next woman has to do,” she adds.
As for me, I’ve started bridging the gap between my on-air voice and my natural speaking voice. And the gravitas? I’ve been laid off, relaunched my career, left to work for myself and had a kid, so maybe it’s coming along nicely on its own. Now I read the news — and the bedtime stories.