Accent snobbery can still bar our progress

We may be proud of the West Midlands accent, but experts say it may be holding you back in life.

Our place should not be defined by how we speak
Our place should not be defined by how we speak

According to a new survey, almost half of employees have had their accent mocked, criticised or singled out in a social setting, while a quarter said this treatment has taken place in a work situation.

While the accents of the Black Country, Shropshire and Staffordshire are proud reflection of communities steeped in a rich history, others can see them as a negative.

The Sutton Trust’s Speaking Up report today examines the impact that someone’s accent has on their journey through education and into the workplace, based on the experiences of sixth-formers, university students and professionals.

It found that a person’s region of origin – particularly in the West Midlands and the North – plays an important part in accent anxiety in earlier life stages.

Later, in the mid-life stage of professional employment, social class differences are more prominent.

A total of 30 per cent of university students and 29 per cent of university applicants reported having been mocked, criticised or singled out in educational settings due to their accents, while this was also experienced by 25 per cent of professionals in work situations.

Employees reported higher levels of being mocked or singled out for their accent in a social setting (46 per cent), with 40 per cent of university applicants reporting the same and just under half of all university students (47 per cent).

The research found that at all life stages, those from lower social grades report significantly more mocking or singling out in the workplace and social settings because of their accent.

For both university applicants and university students, those originally from the Midlands and the north of England were the most likely to be concerned their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future – 29 per cent of university applicants and 41 per cent at university from these regions versus 10 per cent and 19 per cent respectively for those in the south, excluding London.

For those in senior managerial roles from lower socio-economic backgrounds, 21 per cent were worried their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future, compared to 12 per cent from better-off families.

Similarly, 29 per cent of senior managers from working class families said they had been mocked in the workplace for their accent versus 22 per cent from a better off background.

The report said 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.

It said accents associated with industrial regions of England, like the Black Country and Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool – commonly stereotyped as “working class accents” – are lowest ranked. Ethnic minority accents, such as Afro-Caribbean, Indian, are also among those rated the lowest.

In its recommendations for employers, the report said: “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.

“If gate-keepers favour candidates for reasons of prestige rather than merit, this can lead to a vicious circle, whereby non-traditional candidates are discriminated against, reducing their visibility in elite contexts and further marginalising their accent.”

The report said employers should aim to have a range of accents within their organisation, and action to tackle accent bias should be seen as an important diversity issue in the workplace.

In advice for students and employees, the report said it is best to avoid focusing excessively on accent modification, and instead focus on subject knowledge and confident public speaking.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said the research provides new evidence on the major role that accents play in social mobility.

“It is disgraceful that people are mocked, criticised or singled out for their accents throughout their education, work and social lives.

“A hierarchy of accent prestige is entrenched in British society with BBC English being the dominant accent of those in positions of authority.

“This is despite the fact that less than 10 per cent of the population have this accent.

“Self-consciousness and anxiety about accent bias are present at all stages of life.

“For instance of those in senior managerial roles, 22 per cent from lower socio-economic backgrounds were worried that their accent could affect their ability to succeed, in comparison to 12 per cent from better-off families.

“In order to address accent bias, today’s report recommends that action should be taken to diversify the workplace so that there is a range of accents within the organisation,” he said.

Professor Devyani Sharma from Queen Mary University London, author of the report, said the research shows that “a long-standing hierarchy of accent prestige” in Britain is still in place.

She said: “Accent-based discrimination actively disadvantages certain groups at key junctures for social mobility, such as job interviews.

“This creates a negative cycle, whereby regional, working class, and minority ethnic accents are heard less in some careers or positions of authority, reinforcing anxiety and marginalisation for those speakers.

“It is natural for people to associate accents with social groups.

“But relying on accent stereotypes to judge professional ability in this way is discriminatory.”

For the research, 511 university applicants, largely 17-18 year olds, were surveyed, as well as 1,029 university students, 1,014 early-career professionals and 1,002 later career professionals.

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