How microphone technology helps silence women

innovation Feb 18, 2021

A woman on stage with a microphone is a woman who has already overcome many barriers to simply being there.

Then she has to deal with the technology….

This week the World Trade Organization appointed Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its director-general. She is the first woman and the first African on the post. There’s obviously a lot to say about this, but what I’d like to talk about here is how technology is not made for the face of power changing in this way.

Yes… let’s talk about microphones!

The microphones that leaders and speakers wear on stage have a battery pack. It’s heavier than it looks and it needs to be fitted somewhere. The design is perfect for men in western clothes (surprise!) they just put the battery back in the pocket of their jacket and attach the microphone to their tie. If the microphone has a headset the fact that they tend to wear their hair short makes it easy to put on. Being fitted with a mic is a painless and quick process. FOR THEM. For most women it’s a stressful thing requiring:

  1. planning

  2. a private space

  3. some degree of striptease/acrobatics

Now let’s talk about Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Her signature outfit is a dress from Ankara, the African wax cloth that she wears complete with a head tie. (You should all check out the hashtag #AnkaraArmy on Twitter). She also tends to wear a single strand necklace and earrings. Now none of this works well with current microphone technology/design.

If you don’t have a jacket or trousers/skirt with a reasonably wide belt the battery pack needs to be fitted to your bra. If you are in a dress this becomes a big operation where you basically have to have embarrassed male sound technicians attach things to your underwear while you twist and pull the wires under your clothes.

Sometimes there’s a strap they put around your tie instead - think Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (the Angelina version). This strap is extremely uncomfortable. I once had one starting to glide down my leg while I was speaking. In the end a male sound technician had to dive in under the table and try to pull it up.

We were both SUPREMELY embarrassed.

As mentioned, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wears a head tie which does not agree well with the way microphone headsets are currently designed. Then we have her earrings. Women speakers are often given the advice to “take off the earrings” or “how about you wear only one earring? Nobody will notice”

(OF COURSE they will notice. Since WHEN isn’t everything about women’s appearance noticed and pointed out to them?!)

Imagine if male leaders had to strip off and have battery packs attached to their underwear every time they went on stage? Think about the embarrassed female sound technicians trying not to notice what colour of underpants Boris Johnson wore.

This just wouldn’t happen.

But it happens to female leaders all the time. No wonder Angela Merkel is always in a pant suit. But should Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala give up her #AnkaraArmy?


Technology should adapt to women and the face of power shifting.

Not the other way around.

Happy Thursday!

PS. Most male speakers also don’t have to worry about the risk of sounding “shrill”. Conveniently for them broadcast and voice technologies have historically been developed for male voices. Even today some of it makes women’s voices sound thin.

Women still get the advice to lower their voices because the technology is often not adapted/set for them to speak with passion. Remember the whole discussion about Hilary Clinton “shouting” into the microphone… Yep.



Profile of new WTO boss Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in the Financial Times

A Century Of “Shrill”: How Bias In Technology Has Hurt Women’s Voices, by Tina Tallon

Wax Print: Africa’s Pride or Colonial Legacy? by Clare Spencer.

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