Accents and Social Mobility in Britain

A recent report shows that accent bias still exists in the UK and is a barrier to social mobility. The report is Speaking Up: Accents and Social Mobility, issued by the Sutton Trust in November 2022. https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Accents-and-social-mobility.pdf

Accent bias is rating people less favourably just because they speak with an accent that is not ‘standard’ or that has low social prestige. Stereotypes about speakers of some accents lead listeners to conclude (with no justification) that those speakers are, for example, less competent or less expert than speakers of accents that have higher prestige.

The Sutton Trust is a foundation which aims to improve social mobility in the UK through evidence-based programmes, research and policy advocacy.

I present below a summary of the report’s main contents, under 3 headings:

  • summary of previous work on accent bias in the UK
  • a new study on experience of perceived accent bias
  • recommendations

Summary of previous work on accent bias in the UK

Accent is one of the most recognisable signals of social background in the UK today. It can convey cues to a speaker’s ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, region, culture, or social class. Less than 10% of the population speak with the accent known as Received Pronunciation (‘RP’, sometimes known as ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’). But speakers with that accent dominate positions of authority across the media, politics, the civil service, courtrooms, and the corporate sector. They tend to have higher economic status than speakers with non-standard accents.

The report summarises previous research on accent bias in the UK. The summary focuses on 2 recent studies in the project Accent Bias Britain (www.accentbiasbritain.org):

  • a study of public attitudes
  • a simulated recruitment exercise

Public attitudes

A survey of 821 people found that public attitudes to accents—and public stereotypes about speakers with those accents—have barely changed since similar surveys 15 and 50 years ago:

  • the standard Received Pronunciation accent, French-accented English, and ‘national’ standard varieties (Scottish, American, Southern Irish) are still all ranked favourably;
  • accents associated with England’s industrial cities—like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham (accents commonly stereotyped as ‘working class accents’)—and minority ethnic accents (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) are still ranked least favourably.

Simulated recruitment exercise

A related study asked 848 people to listen to 10 mock interviews for a job as trainee in a law firm. The mock interview responses contained identical content. Participants were asked to judge the applicants’ competence and expertise for the job. This study tested 5 accents:

  • 2 middle class varieties: Received Pronunciation; and General Northern English
  • a Northern working-class variety: Urban West Yorkshire English
  • 2 working class London varieties: Estuary English (associated with speakers of white ethnicity); and Multicultural London English (associated with speakers of white and Black and/or Asian ethnicity)

In summary:

  • listeners over the age of 45 rated speakers of working-class London accents (Estuary English and MLE—Multicultural London English) as significantly less competent and less expert than other speakers. On the other hand, younger listeners rated speakers of all 5 accents equally. The researchers suggest that this difference does not reflect some social change now in progress. Instead, the authors suggest, this difference arises because people’s attitudes to accent become more conservative as they grow older and as they become more socialised into workplace norms.
  • listeners who live in Southern England and those from higher social classes showed the most bias against Estuary English and MLE voices.
  • listeners rated job interview responses in a strong MLE accent lowest of all responses, but rated responses in a milder MLE accent more highly. Listeners were less sensitive to accent strength for Northern accents than for MLE.

Ways to reduce bias

Other studies conducted as part of this project suggested that interviewers show less bias:

  • if the interviewer receives training about accent bias and how to avoid it;
  • if the interviewer reads a short awareness-raising text before performing a recruiting task;
  • if interviewees’ responses display expertise and confidence.

Consequences of accent bias

The report notes some harmful consequences of accent bias. To summarise, accent bias:

  • impedes social mobility
  • raises barriers to entering elite professions.
  • leads to stereotypes that lead to unjustified assumptions that speakers with some accents lack competence, intelligence, or knowledge.
  • is sometimes a conscious or unconscious proxy for other forms of discrimination, for example against ethnic, class, or regional groups.
  • alienates speakers of accents bearing a social stigma.

Experience of perceived accent bias

The summary above focuses on attitudes held by listeners, recruiters, or employers. New research below considers speakers’ reports on their own accent anxiety, experiences of bias, and feelings of not belonging.

Accent bias and anxiety across life

This new research focused on how accent bias affects anxiety, sense of belonging, and experiences of bias for different social groups. The research studied 4 key life stages: university applicants (largely age 17-18), university students (largely age 18-21), young professionals (largely age 21-24), and senior managers (largely age 35+). In summary, accent anxiety and experience of accent bias affect every life stage, but particularly at university. In brief:

  • 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%).
  • across life stages, people worry that their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future. That worry was again highest for university students, at 33%, compared to 19% of employees and 18% of university applicants.
  • many participants reported that people had mocked them, criticised them or singled them out because of their accents in educational or work settings (29% of university applicants, 30% of university students, 25% of employees).
  • even more participants reported mockery, criticism or being singled out in social settings (40% of university applicants, 47 % of university students, and 46% of employees).

Differences by region, socio-economic background and age

  • In earlier life, region of origin plays an important part in accent anxiety, particularly for people from the North of England and the Midlands. Later, in mid-life professional employment, social class differences become more prominent in effects on accent anxiety.
  • 29% of university applicants (and 41% of university students) originally from the North of England worried that their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future. This was the case for only 10% of university applicants (and 19% of university students) from the South (excluding London).
  • At all life stages, respondents from lower social grades report significantly more mocking or singling out of accent in workplace and social settings than other respondents. Of senior managers from those backgrounds, 21% worried that their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future and 29% of them said they had been mocked in the workplace for their accent.  Of senior managers from a better-off background, only 12% worried about the future and 22% said they had been mocked.

Recommendations

The report gives recommendations for both employers and employees.

For employers

The report directs the following recommendations at any employer, but particularly for elite professions, HR teams, the civil service, schools, and universities:

  • Employers should tackle accent bias, alongside tackling other types of discrimination such as sexism, racism or ableism. This should be part of a wider strategy within to make their workforce more socio-economically diverse.
  • Recruiters should receive training on reducing accent bias.
  • 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.
  • 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. A more appropriate professional trait is an ability to expect—and work with—diverse cultures and social backgrounds.
  • Action to tackle accent bias should include action on social settings associated with work. Accent-related commentary and mockery are highest in social settings.

For employees and job applicants

The report recommends that students, job applicants, and employees should not focus too much on modifying their accent. Instead, they should focus on having and displaying subject knowledge and on confident public speaking.

The report also asks colleagues speaking with a ‘standard’ accent to point out accent bias when they see it in professional settings and in workplace social settings.

Conclusion

The report provides evidence that accent bias still exists in the UK and causes harm. It makes some useful recommendations on how recruiters, employers and educational establishments can act to reduce accent bias.

For other posts discussing accent bias, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/tag/accent-bias/

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