To Check Your Gender Bias, Stop Listening to Your Ears

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It’s a presidential election season and this means the national spotlight on gender bias in politics finally gets switched back on. We get to see both Clinton and Fiorina held to different standards than men like Trump who questions the electability of Fiorina’s face.

It wasn’t the first time Trump aimed his sexism at Fiorina. On Twitter he also ranted about the electability (presumably) of her voice.

Despite referring to himself frequently, Trump doesn’t strike me as a highly self-reflective person. He always seems surprised when the media question his obvious sexism.

Having spent most of my life in the Christian evangelicalsphere, I’ve heard misogyny like Trump’s echoed in plenty of forms and often connected to a woman’s voice.

There was the man who once asked me, “who wants to hear a woman preacher anyway?” I’m sure he thought it was rhetorical, but I made sure it wasn’t.

But it doesn’t take much time on Facebook or Twitter to see the ugly head of misogyny pop up in other faiths or even among the non-religious. It isn’t hard to find the rants of (frequently violent) knuckle-dragging cavemen trying to silence the virtual voice of women.

Why does this backwards thinking persist? According to recent research reported at Science Daily (“Caveman instincts’ may favor deep-voiced politicians”) there might be an evolutionary driver behind gender bias. Researchers from the University of Miami and Duke University discovered that voters elect with their ears, preferring “candidates with deeper voices, which they associate with strength and competence more than age.”

A deeper voice, whether it came from a male or female candidate indicated “greater physical strength, competence and integrity.” According to study co-author Casey Klofstad, associate professor of political science at Miami, “Conflating baritones with brawn has some merit.” Additionally:

Men and women with lower-pitched voices generally have higher testosterone, and are physically stronger and more aggressive.

 

What was difficult to explain, however, was what physical strength has to do with leadership in the modern age, or why people with deeper voices should be considered intrinsically more competent, or having greater integrity.

 

That got them thinking, maybe our love for lower-pitched voices makes sense because it favors candidates who are older and thus wiser and more experienced.

Their research showed a correlation. Participants in the study voted on hypothetical candidates whose ages ranged from 30-70. It was those who were in their 40s or 50s that were more likely to get the vote.

“That’s when leaders are not so young that they’re too inexperienced, but not so old that their health is starting to decline or they’re no longer capable of active leadership,” Klofstad said.

 

“Low and behold, it also happens to be the time in life when people’s voices reach their lowest pitch,” Klofstad said.

They took their research further to look at the “mean voice pitch” of those candidates who ran for the 2012 U.S. House—it turns out that those with lower-pitched voices were also more likely to win. They concluded that this was more evidence of our hidden biases at play. We aren’t always drawn to a candidate based on well-thought out conclusions.

According to Klofstad, “We think of ourselves as rational beings, but our research shows that we also make thin impressionistic judgments based on very subtle signals that we may or may not be aware of.”

Given this, it also isn’t surprising to find other studies, like a recent project from Harvard Graduate School of Education, that show that teen-aged girls are up against a strong bias when it comes to leadership positions. An irrational bias often lurks in the background—in the teen girl study, even their mothers had implicit biases against them. Whether it is with teen girls or female presidential candidates, prejudicial biases always leave us worse off.

So perhaps if Donald Trump really wants to be the leader of America’s future, he needs to stop acting like his prehistoric ancestors. And if voters want to vote for the best person, they need to ignore their ears.

Photo: Roberto Tumini (CC).

Written by Brandon Withrow
Freelance writer (The Daily Beast, The Guardian, RNS, etc.). Author of 9 books. Adjunct lecturer in religious studies. Lover of science.