Not dissimilar in how “professional” email etiquette has been modeled after men’s way of speaking, for centuries, power and authority have been associated with the way that men’s voices sound: a lower frequency with less sing-songy variation than is typically found in women’s voices. Study after study has shown a bias that associates low male voices with competence and authority, thereby contributing to the gender inequity in leadership positions.

Consciously or not, this has led many women to believe they have to lower their pitch when vying for authority. But just as the “face” of leadership has been changing, the sound of power has also been shifting. Many vocal coaches say it’s long past time to throw out the old rules of public speaking — geared to imitate a straight, white, rich, male voice — and instead embrace the authenticity in our natural voices to command influence.

Activating Your Authentic Voice

Though women tend to face more scrutiny for their voices (exemplified by the resurgent interest in Elizabeth Holmes’ baritone voice and Anna Delvey’s accent), we actually change our voices all the time to suit the situation.

“We all alter how we sound on a day-to-day basis in order to get more power, or in order to strategically give away our power,” says Samara Bay, speech coach and author of forthcoming Permission to Speak. Two common markers associated with feminine voices — upspeak and vocal fry — can both be ways women alter their voices to pull back a certain amount of energy and authority.

Though both men and women use these vocal variations, women face more criticism for them. But when women can recognize how they’re used as a protective mechanism, even unconsciously, they can start to recognize the power dynamics at play. “If you think about the people who malign us for using upspeak or vocal fry, would they be able to handle the version of us who doesn't use them?” asks Bay.

Because we are constantly changing our voice to suit the situation, it can actually be a challenge to identify what our truly “authentic” voice even sounds like. Bay has a trick that can help.

“Imagine someone asking you, ‘Do you like this shirt?’ and answering with ‘mmhmm,’” she says. “Wherever that sound sits is where your natural speaking voice should be.” This helps identify what speech pathologists call your optimum pitch. Since it’s where your voice naturally wants to be, speaking at this pitch can relieve some vocal fatigue that women face because they have gotten in the habit of speaking either lower or higher.

Embracing Emotion

Women leaders often also strip energy from the way they would naturally speak in order to sound more authoritative and less “emotional,” but this can paradoxically give away their ability to influence and motivate others.

“What do we sound like when we are talking to our favorite people? How do we care out loud about stuff when we’re in a comfortable context?” asks Bay. “We speak like ‘oh my god, you will never guess..!’ but then we tone it down in the boardroom.”  She suggests really observing that person with passion, that version of us who doesn’t have to prove anything, who has what she calls “peak permission.” “Can I allow her into more spaces?”

She points to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an example of a leader who speaks with both a higher-pitched voice and emotion, and in doing so, helps people remember her and pay attention to the issues she cares about.

Jessica Doyle, voice coach and Professor at East Carolina University, recommends recording yourself, noting that many of her women clients don’t realize how stripped of emotion their voices can sound when presenting. “We may feel like we're speaking really authoritatively, or like we're bringing a certain energy into the room,” she says. “And for whatever reason, it's not reading that way.” Recording yourself can also point out physical tics you might be making in lieu of other speech markers like “ums.”

Taking Care of Your Tools

As a leader, your voice is one of your most important tools in your ability to influence and motivate others, and so it’s important to give it the appropriate attention. Doyle says hydration is a simple, but often-overlooked, way of taking care of the voice. A dehydrated voice can sound gravelly, versus the clear and bright sound you want to be the most impactful.

“It takes about four hours for anything we drink to have an effect on your voice,” she says. “So if you have a morning meeting or important morning presentation, you might consider setting an alarm, drinking a glass of water, and going back to bed.”

We also only have a set amount of “vocal currency” per day,  so for afternoon meetings, Doyle suggests taking a vocal nap 15 or 20 minutes before. Leaders can also warm up or cool down their voices using straw phonation, a technique where you make vocalizations through a straw, which has scientifically shown to improve vocal efficiency and fatigue.

The New Sound(s) of Power

When it comes to voices of authority, we shouldn’t aim to replace the old standard with a new one. Instead, we need to embrace a fuller variety of sounds to change what power sounds like.

“Diversity of life experience is the point,” said Bay. “When we hear people like AOC, the Obamas, Lizzo talk in a voice that sounds like their own and they command respect, the world is changing.”

If we take the permission to sound like ourselves, we give others the opportunity to do so, and we can change what power and authority sounds like for good.