New research provides evidence that having a gay- or lesbian-sounding voice can have tangible consequences on a person’s job prospects. The study, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, indicates that discrimination based on one’s voice may be particularly harmful for women perceived as lesbian.

“Voice is a minimal cue that people use, consciously or unconsciously, to make inferences about others. Stereotypes about voice exist too. I am therefore interested in examining how minimal cues such as voice can affect listeners’ perception and discrimination,” said study author Fabio Fasoli, a lecturer in social psychology at the University of Surrey.

“Gaydar is usually defined as the ability to correctly guess who is gay and who is heterosexual from such minimal clues. As a consequence of gaydar, discrimination can occur when sexual orientation is inferred from a person’s behavior during the hiring process,” the researchers wrote in their study.

For their study, the researchers first recorded 12 men and 18 women reading identical texts out loud which mimicked an applicant applying for a job. A group of participants then listened to the recordings and rated the sexual orientation of the speaker.

The listeners’ ratings were then used to select two gay-sounding men, two lesbian-sounding women, two heterosexual-sounding men, and two heterosexual-sounding women.

In three studies, 340 British heterosexual participants listened to these recordings before evaluating the hypothetical job candidates. The participants were not informed of the sexual orientations of the candidates.

The researchers found that gay-sounding men and especially lesbian-sounding women were viewed as less competent than their heterosexual-sounding counterparts, which in turn was associated with them being rated as less suitable for jobs and ranked lower in employability. Contrary to expectations, lesbian-sounding women did not have an advantage when applying to stereotypically masculine job positions.

“A stereotype about ‘gay voice’ exists and affects people’s impression and reactions. Voice can thus lead to subtle forms of discrimination in the hiring process. Although there is not a shared stereotype about the ‘lesbian voice,’ women who sound ‘lesbian’ are at higher risk of discrimination,” Fasoli told PsyPost.

The findings build upon Fasoli’s previous research, conducted in Italy, which found that participants perceived men and women who they considered to be gay or lesbian as less suitable for leadership positions.

“Voice is only one of the cues that influence individuals’ perception. In social interactions, multiple cues (face, voice, body movement, etc) are available. More research is needed to understand how these cues interact and whether one is predominant over the others,” Fasoli said.

“This research on vocal cues may be particularly important for the courts since there have been cases where lawyers tried to prove sexual orientation discrimination based on the fact that the clients were discriminated against in the workplace because of sounding gay.”

The study, “A Leader Doesn’t Sound Lesbian!: The Impact of Sexual Orientation Vocal Cues on Heterosexual Persons’ First Impression and Hiring Decision“, was authored by Fabio Fasoli and Peter Hegarty.