Accent is arguably the primary signal of socioeconomic status. It is also a major indicator of many other aspects of a person’s social background, some of them protected characteristics, including gender, race, age, sexuality, and many others.
A hierarchy of accent prestige has been entrenched in the United Kingdom for centuries, with Received Pronunciation (sometimes known as ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’) the dominant accent in positions of authority across the media, politics, the civil service, courtrooms, and the corporate sector. This is despite less than 10% of the population estimated to have this accent, almost exclusively from higher socio-economic backgrounds.
This new research, authored by Professor Erez Levon from the University of Bern, Professor Devyani Sharma from Queen Mary University London and Dr Christian Ilbury from the University of Edinburgh, looks at accent bias throughout the life course, including accent anxiety and experiences of discrimination. It also looks at how these experiences differ by socio-economic background, and their implications for social mobility.
of senior managers from working class families have been mocked for their accent at work
of university students report being self-conscious about their accent
of university students from the North of England are worried their accent may affect their future success
- Public attitudes to different accents have remained largely unchanged over time, with the standard Received Pronunciation accent, French-accented English, and ‘national’ standard varieties (Scottish, American, Southern Irish) all ranked highly, while accents associated with industrial cities of England, like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham (commonly stereotyped as ‘working class accents’) and ethnic minority accents (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) are the lowest ranked.
Accent bias and anxiety across the life course
- Self-consciousness and anxiety about accent bias are highest during university, particularly when approaching the end of a degree and facing entry into a chosen career. 35% of university students reported being self-conscious about their accent, a higher proportion than among university applicants (largely 17-18 year-olds) (24%) and professionals in the workplace (23%).
- Many students reported having been mocked, criticised or singled out in educational settings due to their accents (30% of university students and 29% of university applicants). This was also experienced by professionals in work situations (25%).
- Employees report higher levels of being mocked or singled out for their accent in a social setting (46%), with a similar proportion of university applicants reporting the same (40%) and just under half of all university students (47%).
Differences by region, socio-economic background and age
- In earlier life stages, region of origin (particularly the North of England and the Midlands) plays an important part in accent anxiety. In the mid-life stage of professional employment, social class differences are more prominent. At all life stages, respondents from lower social grades report significantly more mocking or singling out of accent in workplace and social settings.
- For both university applicants and university students, those originally from the North of England were the most likely to be concerned their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future (29% of university applicants and 41% at university from the North, vs 10% and 19% respectively for those in the South, excluding London).
- For those in senior managerial roles from lower socio-economic backgrounds, 21% were worried their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future, compared to 12% from better-off families. Similarly, 29% of senior managers from working class families said they had been mocked in the workplace for their accent, vs 22% from a better off background.
The following recommendations are for any employer, but particularly for elite professions, HR teams, the civil service, schools, and universities.
- 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.
- Recruiters should undergo training to help to reduce any accent biases. For a simple approach which is easily implementable, recruiters can read the following text before a recruitment task, to reduce their reliance on accents to infer skills. There is evidence that doing so can significantly reduce accent-based differences in ratings of the same response:
Recent research has shown that, when evaluating candidates’ performance, interviewers in the UK can be influenced by the candidates’ accents of English. In particular, they tend to rate candidates who speak with a “standard” accent more favourably than candidates who speak with “non-standard” accents. This is an example of so-called “accent bias”. The focus should be on the knowledge and skills of the candidate, not their accent. Please keep this in mind when assessing the suitability of candidates.
- Employers should aim to have a range of accents within their organisation, and not require or encourage their employees to adopt Received Pronunciation (also known as ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’) in the workplace. Unconscious bias training only raises awareness of implicit biases, it does not eliminate As long as we hear the same accents in certain workplaces, we will not be used to hearing others in those contexts, and our unconscious biases will remain in place. Encouraging employees to change their accents will maintain an over-representation of RP in contexts of authority, and such an expectation also places an unequal cognitive burden on certain applicants and employees.
- There should be no implicit expectation within the workplace that professionalism is signalled by sounding like a person from a certain region, socio-economic background, or who has had a public school education. This middle-class norm is not equally accessible to all and creates serious inequality throughout the A more appropriate professional trait for contemporary times is an ability to expect and work with diverse cultures and social backgrounds in the workplace.
- Action to tackle accent biases and prejudice should take into account work-associated social settings. Accent-related commentary and mockery are highest in social settings, and this can compromise a person’s sense of belonging in a given professional or educational community. There should be awareness among employees of the implications of such practices among colleagues beyond the workplace.