Rehab Med researcher helps clients take pride in their voices

U of A study explores communication cues to help transgender individuals achieve the voices they want

Kate Dawson - 24 June 2020

A new University of Alberta study is edging researchers closer to understanding some of the qualities of communication that can affect perceptions of gender during conversation. 

Teresa Hardy, an instructor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine is looking at which communication cues are perceived through a gendered lens in order to identify focal points to use for communication training with transgender and non-binary clients. 

While previous research has focused on certain verbal aspects of communication, this was the first study to measure the relationship between gestures and perceptions of gender in this population. 

“I wanted to know what we should be focusing on when we’re doing gender-affirming voice and communication training so that we’re able to help people achieve a gender presentation that’s  consistent with how they want to present themselves,” said Hardy. 

In the study, cisgender women, cisgender men and transgender women were recorded while they retold a story of a cartoon they watched. Observers then rated how masculine or feminine they thought the communicators were in three different presentation modes: audio only (voice, no visual), visual only (point light displays that showed movement without physical appearance, no audio) or audio-visual (both voice and visual). 

The participants tended to rate higher fundamental frequencies (the pitch of the voice) and average vowel formant frequencies as more feminine, and lower frequencies as more masculine. 

“If individuals want a gender-neutral presentation, we can work on modifying communication features like pitch and resonance to achieve that. The same goes for more feminine or more masculine presentations.”

In contrast, Hardy found that sound pressure level, or voice loudness, was negatively correlated to feminine ratings, meaning that louder voices were perceived to be more masculine than quiet voices were. 

Communicators were also rated as more feminine in the audio-only mode than they were in the audio-visual mode. Hardy explained this could be due to the fact that almost all of the transgender women in the study had reached adulthood before beginning their transitions, so they may have learned to gesture in ways that people consider to be masculine. The difference also could be explained by stereotype-based expectancies, which are beliefs that people rely on to form perceptions when there are strong cues of membership in particular social groups, like gender.  

“Right now, a feminine voice is considered to have a relatively high pitch,” said Hardy. “As people begin to embrace more diversity in gender presentation, then maybe a feminine voice can have a high pitch or a low pitch. Or maybe feminine communication could be defined in a completely different way.” 

Because voice has been shown to be such a strong indicator of gender, some transgender individuals might desire to change their voice to better represent how they feel. 

Hardy, who is also a speech-language pathologist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, often witnesses increased self-confidence and self-satisfaction levels in the people who engage in the training. She noted, “They just feel better about themselves. They feel like they are better able to put out there how they feel about themselves and move around in the world in ways that match how they feel.” 

This training can also impact client safety. 

“Increased visibility as a trans person, unfortunately, can put someone at risk for discrimination or even violence,” said Hardy. “For some people, this training makes them feel safer as well.”

Hardy’s research so far has focused on transfeminine clients, as a result of the demand for her services. However, Hardy expects to see a surge of new research focusing on transmasculine people and folks of other gender identities. 

“We’re recognizing that we can’t base gender affirming interventions on research that doesn’t include these folks. We really need to be more diverse in the people who are participating in our studies,” said Hardy.

In the end, Hardy believes a big part of her job involves helping people understand that there are lots of ways of presenting gender. 

“It’s okay if people want to present themselves in a way that fits with the binary, but it’s also okay to have a non-binary presentation,” said Hardy. “Learning how society sees gender can help us guide people to achieve their desired gender presentation.” 

This study, Contributions of voice and nonverbal communication to perceived masculinity-femininity for cisgender and transgender communicators, was published in The Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, and features Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine co-authors Daniel Aalto, Carol Boliek and Jana Rieger.