A round of news articles published last week regarding a study conducted by Florida Atlantic University regarding what is called “vocal fry” and how it affects the perception of women in the employment context. If you’re not familiar with the term vocal fry, it’s the speech pattern by some women in which they talk in a higher pitched voice and then drop into a creaky low pitch at the end of sentences.
Many stories attribute this speech pattern to Kim Kardashian; but I remember this being a thing we attributed to “valley girl”. I think this predates the rise of reality TV by decades. Yet, it’s becoming a widespread phenomenon around the country. Perhaps because the Kardashians and other reality shows made it so visible (audible?) and desirable. It’s more popular among younger women which would also correspond with the population most attached to reality shows.
The study conducted by Florida Atlantic University looked at how prospective employers view this vocal pattern and found that hiring managers interpreted the women with vocal fry as less educated, less competent, less trustworthy and less hirable. This speech pattern is normally attributed to white women. Is this sex discrimination? Race discrimination? Are these women unlawfully discriminated against in hiring as a result?
Vocal pattern-based sex discrimination in Texas
Let’s first turn to the issue of possible sex-based discrimination. Undoubtedly this vocal pattern is primarily adopted by young women. So if women lose employment opportunities because they sound too feminine then it sure seems like gender-based discrimination. The argument would assert the feminine vocal pattern acts as a gender-based exclusion from employment opportunities.
If an employer would not hire a male with the same vocal pattern then the argument for sex discrimination probably fails. If a manager interviewed a woman with this Kardashian-like voice and a man with the “surfer dude” type of dialect (essentially the male version of this) and felt the same way about each then the argument almost certainly falls apart. The hostility towards this dialect is typically less about it sounding too feminine but that it sounds like an eight year old girl trapped somewhere between jubilation and tantrum. That just doesn’t scream professional.
Or racial discrimination?
Next, let’s turn to the argument that it could be racial discrimination. Certainly that whole “valley girl” sound is among the stereotypes for white people. So a hiring manager making employment decisions based on racial stereotypes again sounds like an unlawful form of discrimination. And again maybe there is an argument if the hiring manager rejected a candidate for sounding “too white” in an interview.
More likely, however, the employer would argue that if any group identification could be made with the speech pattern it is a regional association with southern California, not a racial association. Much in the same way some people have negative ideas about the Texan drawl or other Southern dialects. It would be up to the plaintiff to prove a racial connection. I think it would be a hard sell unless there was pretty clear evidence of a racial association.