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The coaching sessions critical to my success: PayPal Australia MD

Libby Roy. Image: Supplied
Libby Roy. Image: Supplied

Think of an Australian CEO.

Chances are, the first image that came to mind was a man in a suit.

But before you berate yourself for falling into that gendered stereotype, you’d be forgiven because of Australia’s top 200 companies, only 12 have women as CEOs.

Women only make up 26.2 per cent of ASX200 board directors and only one company has a female in both the CEO and chair position, while 178 companies have a male chief executive and chair.

The truth is, Australia’s top boardrooms are still largely a man’s world.

Navigating stereotypes in the boardroom

It’s something the managing director of PayPal Australia, Libby Roy is aware of. She’s worked as the director of corporate super at AMP and in several roles at American Express.

“I’m a pragmatist and so the first thing I would say [to young women] is, in general, we’re not there yet. Women will face greater challenges than their male colleagues on that leadership journey,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“It all comes back to evolution and subconscious biases.”

Roy explained that while women are often associated with traits of warmth, compassion and sensibility, men are associated with traits of self-confidence, ambition and dominance.

And despite it being quite difficult to discern many differences between the male and female brain, the stereotypes have persisted since the days of when the man was the sole breadwinner.

“The challenge is as a woman it isn’t as easy as adopting the male traits because society and evolution will perceive the same behaviours in a woman quite differently to the way they perceive those same behaviours even if they’re identical,” she said.

“One of the things that I’ve learnt over the years is that it’s more important to be effective than it is to be right.”

If you picture a woman swearing and thumping a table in a professional setting, the connotations are quite different to the same image but with a man.

“I’m always clear that I’m not having a go at men because we all have subconscious biases and in fact women often judge women harshly as well in leadership,” she added.

But Roy argues that the reality is these are expectations that women have to continue to navigate.

So there’s a choice: rail against it, or accept it and make the tradeoffs that will help you be more effective in your job.

“One of the things that I’ve learnt over the years is that it’s more important to be effective than it is to be right.”

The coaching that led to my success

This means thinking pragmatically.

The question is: “How can you be authentic and the leader that you want to be, but where are you prepared to make some adjustments so that you can be more successful [in a male-dominated arena].”

For Roy, this meant taking voice coaching to lower her voice.

While it may be right to say that a woman shouldn’t have to change her voice or the way she communicates to be taken seriously, the reality is that lower voices are considered more authoritative.

“Over the years I’ve actually had a lot of voice coaching to lower the tone of my voice, particularly when I’m trying to make a point,” she said.

“In my earlier days, my higher-pitched voice had a reaction with some of my senior male colleagues where they weren’t hearing the seriousness of what I was conveying and were hearing that I was upset.

“They were reacting to me as the upset female, as opposed to a peer at the table that was making an important point.”

Lowering her voice was one adaptation she could make that she felt didn’t change who she was. It just made her more effective as a leader.

Change my voice for corporate success: is there science behind this?

It’s an uncomfortable piece of advice, but the studies back it up.

A study led by University of Miami and Duke University researchers found that study participants asked to vote in a hypothetical election were more likely to vote for candidates with deeper voices.

In fact, after listening to various male and female voices saying “I urge you to vote for me this November,” in different pitches, the candidates with the deeper voices won 60 per cent to 76 per cent of the votes.

And lower-pitched voices are generally indicative of higher levels of testosterone.

“Modern-day political leadership is more about competing ideologies than brute force,” lead study author Casey Klofstad, Ph.D. said. “But at some earlier time in human history it probably paid off to have a literally strong leader.”

This might also suggest that because women, on average, have higher-pitched voices than men, voice pitch could be a factor that contributes to fewer women holding leadership roles than men, the researchers explained.

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and provides insights on women leaders, found that when it comes to women running for US President, voice is a critical factor.

“Voice and tone matter. Voters are sensitive to women officeholders sounding “shrill”, “loud”, and “boring”, the foundation said in a research memo. This was a criticism frequently levelled at Hillary Clinton.

And in a 2016 paper, ‘Listen, Follow Me’, researchers asked small groups of people to carry out a decision-making activity. Afterwards, they asked the participants to rank the people in the group by dominance. Most people changed their pitch within a few minutes of the exercise, while those who raised their voice were counted as more submissive.

Those who lowered their voices were thought of as more dominant and in control.

Even controversial UK leader, Margaret Thatcher got on board, taking voice coaching to lower her pitch a staggering 60 hertz.

Journalists receive the same messaging

As a journalism student, I was told that women generally need to lower their voices for radio to sound more authoritative. Caitlin Fitzsimmons from the Sydney Morning Herald was told the same thing during her studying days.

And BBC commentator Vicki Sparks was also criticized by former Chelsea player Jason Cundy for her “high-pitched”, feminine voice.

Podcast producer, Katie Mingle went so far to craft an auto-reply email to respond to the sheer volume of people writing in to complain about her female reporters’ voices.

The US National Public Radio has also reported receiving a large number of complaints about voices – again, levelled primarily at women.

So is changing our voices right?

Probably not.

But if humans are genetically geared to consider lower voices stronger, then adapting could be the most effective – if uncomfortable – path to success.

As Roy said: “Take the feedback.”

“Even if the feedback is not fair and the feedback is not right, listen and then ask: “Am I prepared to make some modifications that will make me be more effective, even if I don’t think that it’s right?”

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