1. Transport
August 18, 2016updated 23 Mar 2023 12:21pm

Why are most announcements on London's transport system made by women?

By Jack May

“This station is Westminster. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”

We hear those overhead voices every day without so much as a thought. But it’s worth asking some questions. Who are these voices? How were they chosen – and why were they chosen?

And, most of all – why are they all women?

The state of the research

The significance of the gender of voiceover announcements was investigated in a 2010 survey of 2,194 Americans conducted by AdWeek Media and Harris Poll. Here’s what it found:

  • 48 per cent thought a male voice was more forceful, whilst 49 per cent thought the gender of the voice made no difference;
  • 46 per cent thought a woman’s voice was more soothing – 49 per cent thought the gender made no difference there, too;
  • 19 per cent thought a female voice was more persuasive, which is one point higher than the 18 per cent who thought the same about male voices.

Logically speaking – and with no consideration of the ethics behind this – if you want something to be forceful, you can keep 98 per cent of people happy by using a male voice. If you want something to soothing, you can keep 92 per cent of people happy by using a female voice. If you want your announcement to be persuasive, well, it’s basically a coin-toss.

It’s presumably research like this that feeds into the genders used in advertising. A 2015 study by a group of academics from Washington State University found that the majority of political advertisements in the USA use men as their voiceovers.

More specifically, Republican adverts were more likely to feature female voices than Democrat adverts – even though women are more likely to vote for Democratic presidential candidates. The thinking goes that female voters are more likely relate to respond to a female voiceover.

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So what does this mean for London transport?

Whether or not this is a direct result of this research, we can’t say – but here’s a quick overview of who says what on the tube.

The Jubilee and Central lines use female announcers for routine announcements (“The next station is Canons Park. Exit here for the slow-brewing tedium of suburbia”), but male voices for command-related announcements (“Would you just mind the closing doors it’s really not that hard”).

Meanwhile, the Northern, Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Hammersmith & City, District, Victoria, and Metropolitan lines all use female voices for all announcements. That level of homogeneity is extraordinary. Considering the extent that the Underground is known for, and fosters, the individuality and identity of each line, it seems remarkable that essentially all lines should follow suit by using female voices in overhead announcements.

It’s the same elsewhere on the network, too. London Overground services and all London buses across the system use a female voice – specifically, that of voiceover artist Emma Hignett.

But these choices aren’t taken lightly. The process involves more than a bunch of blokey Transport for London (TfL) executives sat around a conference table, chowing down on some doughnuts and noncommittally saying, “People like women don’t they? Let’s have women saying the stuff on the train!”

Emma Clarke, who was the voice of the Central, Bakerloo and District lines until a storm-in-a-teacup controversy over whether or not she actually likes the tube saw her work suspended, describes a long-haul process. In a 2010 interview, she explained:

“They asked a production company in London to help source a voice, so they got three blokes and three women to test,” she said in a. “I recorded some test announcements and they took it dead seriously – they sent it out to focus groups. The process took eighteen months.”

The trust factor

So back to the original question: why does TfL prefer female announcers?

A 2014 Glasgow University study offers one possible answer.

Researcher Phil McAleer made 300 listeners sit through recordings of 60 different voices saying only the word “hello”. Nothing more, nothing less. He then asked those listeners how trustworthy they found the voice.

He found that men with the lowest-pitched voices were deemed the least trustworthy, whilst higher-pitched female voices were thought of as more trustworthy. High-pitched women whose voices dropped slightly at the end of the sentence or phrase were considered even more trustworthy still.

This perhaps makes sense. If some grumbly bloke who sounds like he’s puffed through 30 a day since Year 7 tells you that the next station is Stockwell and you can change there for the Victoria line, are you really going to trust him? Sure, it’s a completely irrational thought process, but it clearly still happens. And when there’s enough to worry about on the tube – Gestapo-esque commandments to watch out for people with funny-looking bags, surface-of-sun temperatures, leering blokes with liberal limbs, the kid who totally just sneezed on you – you don’t want to be enduring subconscious trust falls with the voiceover every time you pass a station.

So before the meninists start clamouring; no, it’s not an assault on equality, and no, you don’t deserve or need equal representation on tubes and buses. TfL has a rigorous process for choosing its voices, and the science suggests that those voices work.

The more pertinent questions are why we find women’s voices more trustworthy, and why we find them more soothing.

The answer is probably, as usual, patriarchy.

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