My social psychologist daughter edits me if I dive too deeply into gendered themes, so I’ll take a cautious approach to the topic of when to hire a female voice over talent. What do your casting decisions about gender come down to? In voiceover and on-screen, females are still cast less often than males, which doesn’t reflect our lived experience. Fortunately, some creatives are opening their casting to be inclusive to more females and non-cis gendered performers, which is a welcome breath of fresh air. Bias or “unconscious bias” is more than a current business buzzword.
To stop contributing to harmful gender stereotypes, it’s good for us to reflect on our casting choices whether we’re talking about voice over or on-camera representation in paid media (internet and broadcast commercials), explainers and corporate narrations, or online training and eLearning. It’s not only good for our growth as individuals, but it also helps us better reflect a shift in society toward more inclusion of gender (and race and other differences).
Female Voice Over Progression
As a female voiceover talent with many years in the industry, I’ve noted a slow but steady growth of female representation over the decades. When I began voice work in the ’80s as part of my duties as a DJ or on cam talent at radio and TV stations, I (or another female talent) would get called in to voice one out of every five commercials. Rarely were we given the “voice of authority” tag line. Corporate narration was almost exclusively the domain of men, or if women were cast, it served as a counterpoint to the main male narrator – or a character, flavor.
Happily, this has changed significantly – especially in the last 5-10 years. Voiceover casting networks say the gap between gender casting requests is getting smaller and smaller. Spokespeople from Voice123 note a ratio shift from 58:42 in 2010, so now 53:46 in 2020. Other casting sites report a more significant difference – more along the lines of 60-40. In any event, the gap is narrowing, which is good news for representation. From a stand-out-of-the-crowd, pure numbers perspective, fewer female voices being cast may make them more noticeable. Other things to think about?
Trust vs. Persuasion
Voiceover in explainer video research indicates that men’s voices are more effective when persuasion is the goal. Women’s voices are seen as more effective when establishing trust is critical. In recent years, we’ve seen an influx of women’s voices being used in two key markets where trust is key: in the financial arena and healthcare settings. Healthcare is a more intuitive choice for females, and we also have the societal bias of thinking of women as more nurturing. Men’s voices were still heard most often in the automotive IT and engineering world. However, this has been shifting over the past few years.
Reflecting on our lived experience versus social perceptions, many women can be equally effective as men in the persuasive department, and trust is not the bailiwick of the XX.
Who is Your Target Audience or Market?
Your product may be inherently targeted more to one gender or another (for example, beard care products or feminine hygiene), so you may default to the gendered voiceover that reflects much of your target market. Or you may use its opposite to juxtapose heavily gendered visuals or fold something a little unexpected into the mix of your message.
Default Female Voice Over Casting Choices
Where are females chosen more often than males? Interestingly, roles are perceived as service roles, like answering phones and virtual assistants. Hello Siri and Alexa. What does that say about our thoughts of female roles as a society?
Default Male Voice Over Casting Choices
Certain casting choices still default to men. TV promo and in-show narration is predominantly male. I did a recent voiceover for an iHeart podcast trailer, and the producer confirmed most of his trailer voice actors were still skewed XY. The same goes for movie, game, and book trailers. 70-80% of the voice roles in gaming are still male, and although some gaming companies announced initiatives to write in more female roles and make an effort to steer away from stereotypes, the roll-out has been slow. In the news, in a 2015 report, men make up 81% of experts and 63% of reporters globally.
Is Voice Gender a Color in Your Palette
Do you tend to default to one gender or another? A copywriter pal of mine didn’t think so. They professed to be sensitive to gender and always seek auditions and samples of both in projects. After looking back on the actual gender of voice over casting choices over the past couple of years, they were surprised that gender representation in their projects cast was 20% heavier toward males than females. Another creative buddy in a similar discussion was happy to have cast three gender-nonspecific voice roles in their ads over the same time frame. But they were careful to point out that seeking non-binary voices to represent brands should not be undertaken as a flavor of the month or a pandering marketing ploy. Sincerity is key. Some of the world is becoming more sensitive to gendered identities, and some heavily resist any form of discussion.
Stripping Gender Away – Who Tells it Best?
Are casting decisions about who tells the story best subjective? To a certain degree, yes. Identifying what is most important to you about your story and how you want the listener to feel when they hear it helps ensure your ultimate goal is met.
Let’s sub in some Hollywood A-listers to illustrate. Different notes in the listener’s heartstrings will resonate depending on whether Little Red Riding Hood is told by Tom Hanks, Matthew McConaughey, or Morgan Freeman versus Viola Davis, Kristen Bell, or Francis McDormand. Not only for their gender but also for the style, empathy, grace notes, and other elements that make up their brands.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. In the acting profession, the number of men and women training is 1 male to every 4 or 5 women. This number hasn’t changed since I was in acting school during the dawn of millennials to now when I’m privy to the numbers as a voice acting coach. With more male roles on offer than female roles (4:1 in the 80’s to let’s say 3:2 in the 20’s), does that mean the women who make it in the profession are better storytellers? I don’t know. But the numbers give one pause…