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BBC social mobility film explores Queen Mary accent bias research

Researchers from Queen Mary’s Department of Linguistics have shared their accent bias expertise and evidence-based advice in a new BBC docuseries on how social class can affect job prospects in the UK.

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BBC2’s ‘How to Crack the Class Ceiling’ sees Amol Rajan investigate how young people from working class backgrounds can secure jobs in Britain’s most prestigious professions, meeting academic experts on social mobility as well as those personally fighting to break into the elite.

Professor Devyani Sharma and Visiting Professor Erez Levon have run a massive research project on accent bias in the workplace. Prof Levon told Amol: “The reality is that accent still matters, and the research that we’ve done really shows that; we're finding the same hierarchy today that existed 50 years ago.”

The film follows Mansfield solicitor Paige, who’s trying to climb the legal career ladder but worried she doesn’t look and sound like a typical barrister. “By working at this firm and being introduced to barristers all the time, there’ll be the odd one where they talk a little bit like me – but more so than not, they’re definitely from a more privileged background,” Paige explained.

Queen Mary’s research findings mirror Paige’s experience, as Prof Levon outlined. “We found that, in law firms, London working class accents were judged as significantly less competent for a job as a junior solicitor – even when their answer was exactly the same as somebody who spoke with a received pronunciation (RP or ‘posh’) accent. Certain lawyers said to us: ‘If they have this accent or that accent, I’ll hire them but never put them in front of a client, they can just do back office work’.”

Prof Sharma added: “We did also find an ethnicity effect, a kind of intersection of ethnicity and class; young black men were the lowest rated job candidate of all the voices we recorded.”

Amol told Erez and Devyani about Chris, a young man from Hull striving for a civil service career who watches voice coaching videos online because he feels his accent will hold him back. “Even though I fully understand why he’s thinking about accent modification, I’m very worried about it, because of the pressure that this puts people under,” Prof Levon commented.

Prof Sharma continued: “The reality is there’s a risk for speakers of certain accents that they’ll have more difficulty ‘making it’ than speakers of RP accents – but we try and separate that from the worry, because worrying too much about the effect of their accent can undermine other things that will serve them well. If you have expertise and speak confidently, our research really showed that listeners don’t rely as much on their biases about accent and they actually start listening to what you’re saying.”

Later in the show, Amol caught up with Chris as he prepared to start an internship with the Department for Transport as part of a diversity and inclusion scheme. Amol shared what he learned at Queen Mary about how the Hull accent was not highly ranked in the UK hierarchy, but research showed that communicating confidently can help override this.

This is personal for Amol, having become an exception to the trend, coming from a working-class background to reach the top of his industry. He discussed accent bias in the media with Devyani and Erez, who shared their findings that 70% of newsreaders use RP (often called ‘BBC English’) while just 10% of the general population speak this way. 

Prof Sharma explained that most people in the UK have ‘working-class’ accents but these voices are not heard in the daily news agenda, which can fuel accent bias. “If we only hear farmers on TV sounding like they’re from the West Country, we’re surprised to meet a lawyer with that voice,” she said. Prof Levon added: “We learn these attitudes from somewhere, they’re not just there, it’s about the people that you hear presenting the news and as our politicians in Parliament.”

In the second episode of the docuseries, Amol met with BBC director general Tim Davie to challenge him on the broadcaster’s role in these issues. Reflecting on how the accent bias research relates to what young people in the documentary shared about struggling to break into elite professions, Amol said: “They think it’s because of a prejudice we don’t talk about enough in this country - classism - and the evidence suggests they’re onto something. 

“For all the little tricks and techniques that we try, they’re not working, are they? If it’s not going to work, helping individuals find their way through a game that is rigged, then I’m starting to think we should see if we can change the game.”

Watch ‘How to Crack the Class Ceiling’ featuring Professors Sharma and Levon on BBC2 at 9pm tonight (Tuesday 6 December 2022) or catch up any time on BBC iPlayer.

At the same time next week, the second episode will also feature Queen Mary’s Dr Louise Ashley sharing her latest research on social mobility in the finance industry.

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