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

Well, at least the announcements are soothing. Image: Getty.

“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.

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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.