Professor of Sociolinguistics
“There’s no such thing as an ugly accent,” says linguist David Crystal, “like there's no such thing as an ugly flower.” But is that true? Do we respond equally to voices speaking with any accent? Research led by Professors Devyani Sharma and Erez Levon suggests that accent bias is alive and well in Britain – in fact attitudes have changed little in the last fifty years.
Many people recognise that they shouldn’t discriminate due to the protected characteristics of ethnicity or gender − yet they may openly disparage a particular accent, which can be a marker of these characteristics.
A 2006 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 76% of employers admitted discriminating against candidates based on their accent, while only 3% of employers recognised accent as a protected category.
Sharma and Levon, working with a UKRI-funded interdisciplinary team of sociolinguists, social psychologists, and lawyers, set out to discover whether attitudes to accents have changed in the UK over the past five decades. They also wanted to see whether accent bias affects job prospects, and find ways to address the problem.
For an updated picture of public attitudes, the Queen Mary team re-ran surveys from 50 years ago. They surveyed more than 800 people, asking them to rate 38 different British accents from 1-7 for prestige and pleasantness. The labels on the list were the same as those used in the 2005 and 1970 studies, with the addition of accents that have emerged more recently, notably Estuary English and Multicultural London English.
The research showed that attitudes towards British accents remain largely unchanged from 50 years ago. The Received Pronunciation (RP) accent remains the most highly regarded. ‘French-accented’, ‘Edinburgh’, ‘New Zealand’ and ‘Australia’ all appeared within the top 10. As in the two previous studies, ‘Birmingham’ was rated the lowest and ‘Afro-Caribbean’, ‘Indian’, ‘Liverpool’ and ‘Cockney’ were all in the bottom 10. These accents align with urban working-class groups and ethnic minorities.
While we may hold bias against an accent label, are the results different when respondents hear clips of real voices? A further study surveyed over 1000 listeners, who were played clips of mock job interview answers. They were asked to assess the speaker’s suitability for a job in a law firm.
The answer texts were in a formal register and were recorded by 10 young men (18-25 years old).
The study featured two native speakers each of five accents:
While there was still evidence of accent bias, the differences between the reactions to the various accents was much smaller. Older speakers rated all five accents less positively than younger participants, and rated EE and MLE lowest. Young people, however, did not rate accents significantly differently. While we may hope that this is evidence of a shift in attitudes, this pattern was observed in 2005 and 1970, suggesting that accent bias increases with age.
The researchers compared the ratings of responses to “expert” texts (where the speaker showed knowledge of the law) to non-expert texts, where the speaker spoke on general topics. The results show that expert content improves the response to all accents, regardless of their status.
In another study, the team showed that listeners reacted more negatively to a job candidate who showed lack of confidence than to their accent.
These findings are important for aspiring students who may worry about accent bias. They show that being confident and having technical knowledge really do change how a person is heard.
Raising awareness .... had the strongest and most consistent impact on reducing the difference in rating between a non-standard accent (MLE or EE) and RP.
— Devyani Sharma
But who wants to be considered a bigot? Motivation to Control a Prejudiced Response is a psychological measure that indicates an individual’s desire to be perceived as unprejudiced.
This effect often eliminates accent bias. However some older respondents from the South of England or the Midlands, who showed little motivation to control their prejudiced response, continued to show a dislike for the EE and MLE accents.
It seems that in professional contexts and with real voices, accent bias is weaker than when people judge accent labels. Nevertheless, members of the public are still likely to associate RP with professional expertise rather than a more working-class accent.
Is accent bias pervasive enough to affect hiring decisions? The researchers asked 61 lawyers and graduate recruiters in leading UK-based international law firms to complete a mock hiring exercise. These expert respondents were asked to listen to mock interview answers read in different accents. Would they be able to identify good-quality answers, regardless of the accent of the speaker?
These respondents showed a consistent ability to rate responses according to quality, whatever the accent of the speaker. In fact, their ratings matched the evaluations of legal professionals who saw only the written versions of the mock responses. This does not mean they lack bias, but rather with sufficient training, employers can resist the pull of accent stereotypes.
The research has gained considerable attention in the media from outlets as diverse as the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Law Gazette, and the researchers are working closely with many different partners and sectors. These include:
Before creating training materials, the researchers established what interventions might help to reduce or eliminate accent bias.
They examined five possible strategies:
Simply raising awareness about accent bias with a short statement appeared to be the most effective intervention for recruiters. With this in mind, the Accent Bias team has developed easy-to-use training tools for use by professional recruiters as well as law students. Sharma and her team hope that this work will continue to change the way recruiters across all sectors judge candidates by their accents.
“The present study has shown that accent bias is pervasive but, under certain conditions, people in positions of power have the capacity to resist this effect.”