Life

Is accent bias still a problem?

6 Mins read

Everyone has a telephone voice: high-pitched, smart and formal. But what if this performance was extended beyond the phone, and permeated your everyday life to the point where you feel as if you need to alter who you are in order to ‘fit in’?

This is the reality for many people who have regional accents, who often feel as if they have to alter themselves to be taken seriously or to get the job. 

It takes only seven seconds for someone to form an impression of you. The first impression is often from visual cues – such as your clothes, body language, or visible identities such as your race or gender.

However, audible cues, such as accent or choice of vocabulary, can often leave even greater impressions. For many people, it is how they sound rather than how they look that becomes the mark of their identity.

The accent is arguably the primary signal of ones socio-economic status or life experience. Our ears are finely tuned to the wide variety of accents heard across the United Kingdom, and further afield. This often leads to us making preconceived judgements about where someone is from, their education and their class. It is inevitable that some of these judgments, often made unconsciously, are likely to be wrong.

The proportion of students who have experienced their accent being mocked, criticised or singled out, by region [The Sutton Trust]

A recent report by the Sutton Trust, who carry out research into social mobility, reveals that public perceptions of accents has changed very little in over 50 years. Received pronunciation, widely known as the ‘Queens English’ or ‘BBC English’ was rated the most prestigious accent in 2019, as it was in 1969. African-Caribbean and Indian accents, alongside those from Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, were ranked as the least prestigious. 

The report also revealed that a quarter of adults have had their accents mocked or criticised at work and a further 46 per cent said that their accents had been commented on or mocked in social situations. For university students, this figure was 47 per cent. 

Evidently, the issue of accent bias is far from being eradicated within British society. In fact, many people with working-class or regional accents fear that their careers might suffer because of the way they speak.

Received pronunciation is the most dominant accent in positions of authority across the media, politics, the civil service, courtrooms, and the corporate sector. This is despite the fact that less than 10 per cent of the British population is thought to have this accent, almost all those who do are from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Many young people don’t feel as if they have the ‘correct’ accent and share concerns about the impact that it may have on their careers, and many have been mocked, criticised or singled out during their education, work and social lives.

“Just because someone has a working-class accent from, say, Leeds or Liverpool, doesn’t mean they’re less capable.”

Sir PETER LAMPL

We interviewed two students who are from the North of the United Kingdom, who both moved to London to study at university, on how they feel they have been treated and perceived, and if they have any personal concerns for their future because of their accent. 

Samuel Shaw is a third-year Journalism student at City, University of London, and is from a small town called Mossley, which is near Manchester: “I don’t really have a Mancunian accent despite living close-ish to the city. I have a Lancashire accent, through and through.” 

When asked if he believes that there is a hierarchy of accents in the United Kingdom, he told us: Yes, it’s evident, at least on a social level. I think that people still assume about ones wealth, class and background as soon as they open their mouth. In a working environment, I think the hierarchy is much lower than it used to be.

“I mean, Clive Myrie, one of the best BBC reporters, was originally from Bolton, which says a lot to me. But there is definitely a North-South divide, and it goes back so far! The gap may even be widening now thanks to a Tory government that doesn’t care as much about anything above London.”

Sam Shaw thinks his Lancastrian accent gives him an edge in London [Sam Shaw]

When asked if he had experienced any kind of belittlement because of his accent during his time spent in London and abroad for his studies, he shook his head: “Never in a serious way, ever. There has never been any reason for someone to seriously mock my accent.” In fact, he admitted that he “loves having the accent I have down South; sticking out like a sore thumb when talking gives me a certain edge I reckon.”

He admits that he is not worried about losing out on job opportunities because of his accent: “I believe it to be the opposite really. These days in the journalism field, I think more and more companies want to hear voices that are against the grain, so to speak. My Lancashire accent certainly isn’t as popular [as the ‘Queens English’] but there are definitely many great people within the media these days that largely sound like I do, or with an even thicker accent.”

I first met Sam in Aarhus, Denmark, during our time abroad as International Students, and his unwillingness to ‘water-down’ his accent and his sense of self for the more reserved Danes amazed me. We both come from similar backgrounds, despite growing up on either ends of the country, yet when I moved to London I felt as if I had to adapt my accent from the jolly Somerset accent I always recognised, into a more neutral ‘London-friendly’ version.

This is a similar case for my other interviewee, Holly*. She is a first-year student at the University of the Arts London, and is studying her BA at the London College of Fashion. We first met in September last year, as she was moving into my block of flats; I helped her carry her things up our notoriously steep concrete stairs, and we have been good friends since. 

In our first meeting, she seemed hesitant to speak, which I put down to shyness, when she very quietly thanked me in a hushed tone. Later, she would admit to me that she was scared I would “judge her” for her accent – a melodic Scottish voice that, to me, was a blissful break from the sterile voices I often hear in London.

“I grew up in Edinburgh and I have a noticeably thick accent. Both of my parents are Scottish, and we have lived in our house up North my whole life. I had only visited England once before moving to London for University – I kind of regret not choosing one in Scotland” she told Artefact.

She admitted that she feels ‘out of place’ in the capital city, and wishes that she could hear more of her accent when she is out and about, and in the news: “Both of my parents are proud Scots and they raised me to be proud of my heritage too, but I feel so out of place being in London. I don’t wish I had a Southern accent, as I love my home, but I just wish people weren’t so surprised to hear my accent down here.“

She too, like Sam, feels as if there is a palpable social accent hierarchy: “‘Proper English’ [‘Queens English’] is definitely the most sought after accent; we all associate the accent with wealth and sophistication, although it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have either.”

In addition, she also does not feel as if her accent will prevent her from job opportunities in her chosen field – and wishes employers would do more to eliminate unconscious bias: “London is full of so many different people, from all over the world, so of course there is and should be more accents being heard and broadcasted. And to not hire someone because of their accent is beyond me – it is straight up discrimination at that point.”

“Unconscious bias training only raises awareness of implicit biases, it does not eliminate them.”

Professor Erez Levon

Professor Erez Levon, from the University of Bern was one of the report’s authors, and agreed with Holly’s view that employers should be doing more to tackle accent bias in the workplace.:“It is normal for humans to have stereotypical associations with accents. However, if left unchecked, these biases and stereotypes can be used to judge independent skills and abilities, leading to discriminatory behaviour,” he said.

“Action to tackle accent bias should be seen as an important diversity issue in the workplace, alongside efforts to tackle other types of discrimination such as sexism, racism or ableism. Efforts to tackle accent bias should be part of a wider strategy within organisations to improve socio-economic diversity of the workforce, and instances of accent discrimination should be taken seriously by employers,” Professor Levon added.

Holly concludes that “I believe accent bias is still far from eradication as it stands, but I believe that we, as the next generation of Brits, will change that. I hope that one day when my son or daughter goes for a job interview, or applies to Uni, that they won’t be worried about how people may perceive them because of their accent. I want them to be proud of their, probably, very thick Scottish accent!”

* The interviewee’s real name has been changed on request.


Featured image by Ignacio Ferre Pérez via Flickr CC.

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