Accents cause 'much stress at work and social situations'

'BBC English' is still one accent that holds the most prestige in the UK

Canary Wharf in London. Mocking accents can damage diversity in the workplace, a report says. PA
Powered by automated translation

Research has found that almost half of British employees have had their accents mocked, criticised or singled out in a social setting, while a quarter said this treatment has taken place at work.

The Speaking Up report by the Sutton Trust examines the effect people's accents have during education and into the workplace, based on the experiences of Form 6 pupils, university students and professionals.

People from specific regions, particularly the north of England and the Midlands, experience accent anxiety in earlier life stages, the study found.

Later, in the midlife stage of professional employment, social class differences are more prominent.

Thirty per cent of university students and 29 per cent of applicants reported being mocked, criticised or singled out in educational settings because of their accents.

This was also experienced by 25 per cent of professionals in workplaces.

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 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 university applicants and students, those originally from the north of England were the most likely to be concerned that their accents could affect their ability to succeed in the future – 29 per cent of applicants and 41 per cent of students from the north, compared with 10 per cent and 19 per cent 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. compared with 22 per cent from a wealthier background.

The report said public attitudes to different accents have remained largely unchanged over time, with the standard received pronunciation, French-accented English, and “national” standard varieties (Scottish, American and southern Irish) all ranked highly.

It said accents associated with industrial cities of England, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham — commonly stereotyped as “working class accents” — and ethnic minority accents (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) are the lowest ranked.

“It is normal for humans to have stereotypical associations with accents," the report said in its recommendations for employers.

“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 was best to avoid focusing excessively on modifying accents, and instead work 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 provided new evidence on the major role that accents played in social mobility.

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

“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."

Report author Prof Devyani Sharma, from Queen Mary University London, said the research showed that “a long-standing hierarchy of accent prestige” in Britain was still in place.

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

“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 (mainly aged between 17 and 18) were surveyed, as well as 1,029 university students, 1,014 early-career professionals and 1,002 later career professionals.

Updated: November 03, 2022, 12:01 AM