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‘No, your teaching voice is not “too shrill”’

Don’t listen to critics who tell you your voice is ‘too feminine’ to be authoritative, says this English teacher

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Don’t listen to critics who tell you your voice is ‘too feminine’ to be authoritative, says this English teacher

In Jane Hammond’s first year of teaching, she was told by a colleague that students’ learning was being hindered because her voice was “too feminine”.

And she's not the only one.

Last week, a female friend of mine who is also a teacher told me that she had considered “voice assertiveness training” at evening college, such was her concern that any attempts to sound authoritative in the classroom resulted in her not being taken seriously by pupils.

Meanwhile, Jennifer, an assistant headteacher in Havering, has been told that if she wants to reprimand a child she must “go low and deep, like a man’s voice, as pupils won’t respond to high-pitched female ‘screeching’”.

I know what you’re thinking: here I am “mansplaining” an issue that many women are acutely aware of. But after I tweeted about it a few days ago, I’ve heard from many female teachers who have been warned against the “problem” that is the voice they were born with – often by men. The word “screeching” figured highly in these conversations.

This should come as no surprise, really. As Mary Beard explains in her book Women and Power, the patriarchy has policed the female voice for centuries. The fact that Margaret Thatcher took elocution lessons to ensure her voice sounded less "shrill" is well-documented. Worryingly, though, it is a move that is often held up as something positive: a wonderful example of a woman’s steely determination to succeed.

'Clearly misogynistic'

The criticism of Jane Hammond’s voice as “too feminine” is shocking because the perceived deficiency is directly linked to her being female. However, it would be naive to think that criticisms of female voices that avoid explicit mentions of sex or gender are any less misogynistic.

Because, the fact is, words like “shrill” and “screech” are almost only ever used pejoratively to refer to women. They are a part of the cultural stereotype of the nagging housewife; the neurotic woman who, by merely speaking, speaks too much. The female teacher who is told: “You should try sounding less shrill” is no less a victim of rampant sexism than the female teacher who is told: “You should try sounding less female.”

Some people have tried to tell me that pupils simply respond better to the lower, more authoritative tone of the male voice. If this is true, then it is only because the patriarchy gives greater value to men. This is why women are encouraged to wear suits to job interviews. This is why women are encouraged to be aggressive in their attempts to climb the job ladder. This is why female teachers, up and down the country, are being subjected to the humiliation of having another human being explain to them that their voice is wrong.

As a man, I may be unqualified to properly comment on this issue, but if I could give advice to any woman who may be concerned with her "shrill and screechy" voice, it would be this: if biology or society has deemed that your voice occasionally becomes shrill, so be it. It’s your voice and it belongs to you.

If we want all students to listen to the female voices in our society, then they need to hear female voices, as they are.

So more screeching, please.

Matt Pinkett is an English teacher. He tweets @positivteacha. Some names in this article have been changed.

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