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‘It seems very extreme.’ Did Elizabeth Holmes change her voice? Experts weigh in on the way women speak

The convicted fraudster has gotten attention for her deep voice, with some wondering if she deliberately lowered it to appear more professional. But the more important question may be why she may have felt it was necessary in the first place. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

When Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the medical technology company Theranos and convicted fraudster, showed up for an interview on CNBC’s Mad Money, she wore her signature outfit: a black turtleneck and black slacks, and red lipstick.

And when she opened her mouth to speak, she revealed another key component of her personal brand: her very deep voice.

As Holmes faces up to 80 years in prison at her sentencing this week, her jarring voice has prompted some to question once again whether her voice was another component of an image that she carefully crafted in order to appear more professional. But could she really have faked her voice?

headshot of Rebecca Kleinberger (left) and Meg Heckman (right)
Portraits of Northeastern assistant professor Rébecca Kleinberger and assistant professor Meg Heckman. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“It seems very extreme,” says Rebecca Kleinberger, a Northeastern University professor who studies voice. The voice is something that can change unconsciously, and it’s unclear if the “extreme” voice is intentional, Kleinberger says.

But, knowing what we know about the barriers women face in business and in leadership positions, the more important question might be: Why would she feel the need to lower her voice in the first place?

“Even if we think that she’s faking it, where does that come from?” Kleinberger said. “Is it actually something that works? If it does, maybe that’s part of the problem.”

It’s no secret that women in public-facing leadership positions face obstacles that their male counterparts do not. In Silicon Valley, where Holmes first made a name for herself as CEO of Theranos, women have complained of discriminatory practices, underrepresentation and pay gaps. And in the political sphere, Northeastern assistant professor Meg Heckman says, women’s credentials are more likely to be questioned, and they face more scrutiny over their domestic life. 

For these women, appearance can be a tool or a weakness, depending on one’s point of view. Fashion, for one thing, “can be a huge tool of power,” Heckman says. Shoulder pads made women appear more masculine in the 1980s, Heckman says, and Holmes’ signature turtlenecks were meant to emulate Apple founder Steve Jobs. At the same time, Heckman says, Hillary Clinton faced sexist media coverage due to her skirt suits, Heckman says, and felt pressured to start wearing pantsuits instead.

Women have more options than men when it comes to fashion, Heckman says, and this means what they wear gets more attention. Voices, according to Kleinberger, are no different.

According to Kleinberger, when it comes to “vocal quirks” like upspeaking or vocal frying, men may be just as prone to them as women. But women are more likely to receive bias for them. “When you take a bunch of recordings, a lot of men are vocal fryers. We just don’t process them the same way,” she says.

Still, women in public forums like on the radio are known for being criticized for voice quirks like upspeak—or a rise in tone at the end of the sentence—and vocal fry. “Any woman who has ever worked for public radio or done a guest spot has probably gotten emails telling her that random men didn’t like her voice,” Heckman says.

Heckman has seen this play out in the political sphere as well. “With Harris, we noticed that there was this fixation on her laugh as a ‘cackle’ by the far-right media,” Heckman said. Hillary Clinton’s laugh received similar scrutiny, and, Heckman says, she was linked to the Wicked Witch of the West.

Not only are vocal “quirks” noticed more often in women; women’s voices are also treated less seriously.

For example, at some public railway stations, Kleinberger says, the voice of a woman is more likely to be used for basic announcements, while men’s voices are reserved for service disruptions. “Although sound designers argue that this is supported by psychology research about how listeners are less likely to get upset from disappointing information coming from men than women, it needlessly reinforces existing social biases,” she says.

Do women like Holmes change their voices in order to be taken more seriously? We all change our voices in different contexts, whether we notice it or not, Kleinberger says. People tend to speak at a higher pitch when talking on the phone, for example. Lowering one’s voice is common in the workplace, for both men and women, though “for women it’s more marked,” Kleinberger says. 

Sara Dion is an Elementary English Learners teacher in the Medford Public Schools, and a Somerville School Committee member who knocked on hundreds of doors during her 2021 campaign. She says she has noticed that she has different voices for different contexts. 

“I definitely have different sorts of voices for like, when I’m at work versus when I’m at home,” Dion says, noting that she has a “teacher voice” that’s different from how she would talk to parents or the school committee.

Northeastern student body President Angelica Jorio, meanwhile, notices women speaking louder in certain contexts in order to project confidence.

On the national stage, Ivanka Trump had a different voice in early adulthood than she does now; now she “has a voice that’s more accepted in politics,” Kleinberger says, though it’s unclear if the changes are conscious or unconscious, or physical.

“Does she do it consciously or not? It’s tricky,” Kleinberger says. “There’s a lot the brain can do without our knowledge.”

But whether she’s “faking” it may be beside the point.

Changing voices through voice coaching, or using men’s and women’s voices in certain contexts, as in the train station, only perpetuate the problem of voice bias, Kleinberger says. 

Noticing these invisible “voice biases” is the first step toward dismantling them. However, Kleinberger says, this can be very difficult. “It’s actually very hard to gain awareness,” Kleinberger says. She suggests that just like other forms of diversity training, there should be training for CEOs to help reduce voice bias.

There is hope that things are changing, and that women who run for public office presenting as their authentic selves are more relatable to voters. “Slowly but surely, we’re seeing the perceptions of voters change,” says Erin Loos Cutraro, founder of the nonprofit SheShouldRun. “But we’re not there yet.”

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