Researchers asked kids to judge adults’ job competence based on their voices. Their answers followed gender stereotypes.

February 19, 2021

Kids judge adults by their voices. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Eight- to 10-year-olds judge adults’ competency in their occupations based on whether their voice sounds more masculine or more feminine, new research in the U.K. found, evidence that children in this age group are already influenced by gender stereotypes.

In a paper published Feb. 2 in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, a team of researchers investigated whether children make gender stereotypical judgments about adults’ ability to perform different jobs based on the sound of their voice. 

Previous research has shown that children may be sensitive to sex-related variation in voice frequency, which can influence their assessment of a speaker’s traits in gender-stereotypical ways. But the current study is the first to examine whether child listeners use variation in voice masculinity and femininity to make those gender-stereotypical predictions about occupational competence.

Research fellow and lead author of the paper Valentina Cartei told The Academic Times that the findings highlight “for the first time the fact that the voice is an important aspect of children’s gender stereotyping, while previous literature has focused mainly on the visual dimension of nonverbal behaviors.” Cartei is affiliated with both the University of Sussex in the U.K. and the University of Lyon in France.

Forty-eight British children participated in the study. They were told the gender and occupation of a subject, and then listened to a digital recording of the subject speaking. The voices were artificially manipulated to sound either more feminine or more masculine, and the children were instructed to rate how good or bad they thought the subject was at their job on the basis of their voice.

The subjects were randomly assigned one of nine occupations. Three were stereotypically male: builder, truck driver, mechanic; three were considered female: babysitter, beautician, nurse; and three were gender-neutral: doctor, student, writer.

The research team hypothesized that the children would consider the lower-pitched, more masculine voices to be more competent at the stereotypically male occupations, and vice versa, with the higher-pitched, more feminine voices being rated as more competent for stereotypically female occupations.

The children rated the speakers’ competence on a scale ranging from “1 = very bad” to “5 = very good,” with corresponding smiley faces ranging from “unhappy” to “happy.” Across the sample, both male and female speakers with feminine, high-pitched voices were rated as more competent for the female occupations, and just the male speakers with masculine, low-pitched voices were rated as more competent for stereotypically male occupations.

“The adult voice is a strong bio-social marker for masculinity and femininity,” the authors said in the paper. “Listeners judge men and women with low-frequency voices as physically bigger, stronger, more masculine, more physically and socially dominant than those with voices of relatively high frequency.”

Though these associations are based on stereotypes, they can be partly explained in evolutionary terms, as humans have historically equated a low voice pitch with testosterone, physical strength and dominance, the researchers noted.

“Overall, our results show that variation in adults’ vocal masculinity and femininity—manipulated by artificially lowering or raising mean voice pitch — affects children’s ratings of speakers’ occupational competence in gender-stereotypical ways, though ratings for stereotypically male occupations were also influenced by speakers’ sex,” the authors said. 

This indicates that stereotypical voice-based judgments of occupational competence, which has been previously identified in adults, are clearly present in children who are at least 8 years old. The age group was chosen because starting at 8 years old, children’s range of stereotypes expands and the nature of the gender associations becomes more abstract and multi-dimensional. Such judgments could affect how they view adults and interact with them in social environments.

The study was run with a small sample of children in the U.K., but Cartei said the findings would likely be similar among children in different countries, particularly in Western culture. 

“Speakers’ biological characteristics and socialization processes are potential drivers for these judgments, in particular, it seems plausible that sex segregation in the division of labor may impact children’s stereotypical views of competence,” Cartei said.

“It is possible that children may display less stereotypical judgments in societies with a more equal gender ratio in the labor market across the different sectors,” she continued.

To combat these stereotypes, children should be better exposed to people of all genders working in all industries, as well as exposed to voices that vary in femininity and masculinity across all sectors, the authors suggested.

Cartei and the team recommended that their study model could be used with a wider range of occupations and ratings of relevant traits other than competence, such as dominance or friendliness, in order to further trace the developmental trajectory of children’s occupational stereotyping. Future research could also be extended to younger children and adolescents.

“Given that children use gender-related voice variation to make judgments about adults in occupations, an important next step would be to explore the relative contributions of these judgments to child–adult interpersonal processes,” the authors said.

The study, “Voice Cues Influence Children’s Assessment of Adults’ Occupational Competence” was published Feb. 2 in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. Valentina Cartei, of the University of Sussex and the University of Lyon, was the lead author. Jane Oakhill, Alan Garnham and Robin Banerjee, all of the University of Sussex, and David Reby, of the University of Sussex and the University of Lyon, served as co-authors.

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