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New Queen Mary research reveals impact of accent on social mobility

More than a quarter of senior professionals from working-class backgrounds have been singled out in the workplace for their accent, according to new research by Queen Mary’s professor of linguistics Devyani Sharma

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The latest report from Prof Sharma’s Accent Bias in Britain project 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.

Prof Sharma’s research finds that 30% of university students and 29% of university applicants (largely 17-18-year-olds) report being mocked, criticised or singled out in educational settings as a result of their accents, while 25% of professionals report the same in work settings.

Such experiences are particularly prevalent for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who report significantly more mocking or singling out in workplace or social settings. More than a quarter (29%) of senior managers from working class families said they had been mocked or criticised in the workplace for their accent, compared with 22% of those from better off backgrounds.

The new publication “Speaking Up” explores how a range of different accents are perceived in terms of prestige. Researchers found that people give high rankings to Received Pronunciation (also known as ‘BBC English’), French-accented English and ‘national’ standard varieties (Scottish, American, Southern Irish), with the lowest rankings for ethnic minority accents (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) and those associated with ‘working class’ industrial English cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham).

BBC English remains the dominant accent in positions of authority across society – despite the fact that fewer than 10% of the population have this accent, and those who do come almost exclusively from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Over their lives, many people worry about their accents and how it may shape their life. Nearly a quarter (24%) of research participants reported concerns that their accent could affect their ability to succeed, rising to 33% among university students.  

29% of university applicants from the North were concerned that their accent could affect their ability to succeed, compared to 10% of those in the South (excluding London) – and for those at universities, it was 43%, compared to 19%.

In later life, these worries often become more pronounced for professionals from working-class backgrounds; 22% of those in senior managerial roles from lower socio-economic backgrounds reported concerns about their accent affecting their ability to succeed, compared with 12% from better-off families.

Researchers gathered testimonials on experiences of accent bias and anxiety from 178 university students across the UK, many of whom reported pressure to change their accent against their wishes. The report warns that this adds a cognitive and a social burden to particular groups who have to distance themselves from their own communities, piling pressure on those who may already face disadvantages.

In order to address these issues, the report calls for action to diversify workplaces so that there is a range of accents within organisations. Researchers also advise young people worried about their accent to focus on communicating confidently, rather than changing their accent to fit in.

Prof Devyani Sharma, research author and professor of linguistics at Queen Mary University London, said: “Our work shows that a long-standing hierarchy of accent prestige in Britain is still in place.

“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. Indeed, accent bias often becomes a proxy for discrimination against characteristics protected under the Equality Act.

“Fortunately, our work has also shown that recruiters can disregard accent when alerted to the problem in training, as well as when candidates speak confidently and knowledgeably, regardless of their accent. In this way, both listeners and speakers can start to tackle accent-based discrimination.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust which funded the research, added: “Today’s 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% 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% from lower socio-economic backgrounds were worried that their accent could affect their ability to succeed, in comparison to 12% 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.”

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