Masculinity in court

In last week’s New Scientist (1/3/15), a story by Dan Jones — “Booming voices are no boon for male lawyers” (in print), “Masculine-sounding lawyers less likely to win in court” (on-line) — about a paper to be presented at the Linguistic Society of America meeting that begins today in Portland OR. The research is interesting in its own right, but the way New Scientist frames its results, in terms of a rigid gender dichotomy, deserves comment on its own.

Here’s the entire article, with two passages boldfaced. The first I take to be a characterization by the reporter, Dan Jones; the second I believe to be a direct paraphrase of what the researcher said to the reporter.

In the often macho environment of the courtroom, a booming voice might seem like a good trait for a lawyer to cultivate. Not so – men who sound very masculine are actually less likely to win a US Supreme Court case than their effeminate-sounding peers.

It’s well known that our voice shapes how people perceive us, which in turn may affect how successful we are. Men, for example, are more likely to vote for other men with deeper, masculine voices, and CEOs with deeper voices earn more money.

To explore whether the vocal characteristics of male lawyers affect trial outcomes, a team led by linguist Alan Yu of the University of Chicago collected 60 recordings of lawyers in the Supreme Court making the traditional opening statement: “Mister Chief Justice, may it please the court”. Then 200 volunteers rated these clips according to how masculine they thought the speaker was, as well as how attractive, confident, intelligent, trustworthy and educated they perceived the voice to be.

After accounting for the age and experience of the lawyers, statistical analysis showed that only one of the traits could predict the court outcome. Lawyers rated as speaking with less-masculine voices were more likely to win. “It was a surprise to all of us,” says Yu, whose results will be presented at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Portland, Oregon next week.

Although legal systems are based on the principle of objective trials, we know that obscure factors, such as whether the judge has eaten recently, can bias a case. Yu’s results suggest that the masculinity of the voice is another source of bias. In future work, Yu wants to explore whether the perceived likelihood of winning may affect lawyers’ speech.

If there is a genuine bias, it could be hard to overcome. “You could have legal writings without oral arguments, but that’s not a feasible change,” says Casey Klofstad of the University of Miami. Rather, you could make people aware of the bias, and hope they bear it in mind, he suggests.

Note the restrictions of the study. Yu solicited judgments of “masculinity”, thus tapping into stereotypes of masculine speech, which identify very marked speech styles as masculine (and favor working-class varieties as especially masculine). But the speakers in this research (all lawyers qualified to argue before the Supreme Court) will have varied relatively little sociolinguistically, and so presumably did the volunteer judges. So everyone involved was probably within a very narrow band of masculinity in speech — what we might think of as “ordinary masculinity”. Yu is careful to make this clear, in his reference to “lawyers speaking with less-masculine voices” (as judged by the volunteers); he did not say that these lawyers had un-masculine voices.

It’s interesting that even within this narrow band of variation, there were still significant differences in the judgments.

Also interesting, to me at any rate, is that the New Scientist reporter converted these relative differences into absolute ones, opposing masculine-sounding men and “effeminate-sounding” men. This incorporates a bit of gender ideology that posits a rigid opposition between masculinity and femininity, so that any deviation from (high) masculinity is interpreted as femininity. But I very much doubt that any of the 60 lawyers actually sounded effeminate.

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