Accent is not directly relevant to work outputs. Simple, right? To get hired, or to get ahead in your organisation, you would think that what you say – rather than how you say it – would be the most important factor.
In Speaking Up: Accents and social mobility, published last year by the Sutton Trust, researchers looked at accent bias throughout the life course, highlighting how experiences differed by socio-economic background, which could have implications for social mobility.
They found that ‘public attitudes to different accents have remained largely unchanged over time – with the standard Received Pronunciation (RP – sometimes known as ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’) ranking highly as opposed to accents associated with industrial cities of England and ethnic minority accents.’
With little so-called visible indicators of socio-economic background, accent has become one of the primary signals of socio-economic status in the UK – creating a hierarchy of accent prestige where RP is the dominant accent for those in positions of authority across the media, politics, the civil service, courtrooms, and the corporate sector.
Our own published research in May 2021, Navigating the labyrinth, explored socio-economic background and career progression within the Civil Service. It found that “the right accent and a ‘studied neutrality’ seem to win through at every stage of [those who progress in] their career.”
Accent bias can have many repercussions in the workplace. It may affect hiring decisions or even promotion opportunities. The research shows that it has a devastating impact on the individuals too – producing accent anxiety or worries about their accent affecting their ability to succeed in the future.
Join us at our April masterclass to explore how you can raise awareness of the issue of accent bias in your own organisation and what steps you can take to ensure that the focus is on the knowledge and skills of the employee or candidate, and not their accent.
We’ll be joined by Professor Devyani Sharma from Queen Mary University London who co-authored the Sutton Trust research highlighted above and will share her findings of accent bias, and the implications for social mobility.
We’ll also be joined by Antoinette Willcocks from FleishmanHillard who will be discussing how they have highlighted the issue of accent bias in their organisations and what steps they have taken to drive change.
About the speakers
Professor Devyani Sharma, Queen Mary University London
Devyani is a Professor of Sociolinguistics at Queen Mary University London – Her research is on new English dialects, inter-ethnic contact, bilingualism, accent variation, and language change. In addition to co-authoring the Sutton Trust research report Speaking Up: Accents and social mobility, recent research publications include: ‘50 years of British accent bias’ (2022) and ‘Accent Bias and Perceptions of Professional Competence in England’ (2021). Devyani is part of the team behind Accent Bias in Britain project, providing research-led information on current attitudes to accents in Britain and reviewing the role that this unconscious accent bias plays in the workplace.
Antoinette Willcocks, Director and UK Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I), FleishmanHillard UK
Antoinette is Director and UK Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) for global PR agency, FleishmanHillard. She is on the Management Board for the UK agency and a Counsellor in the London MOSAIC practice, a team dedicated to providing DE&I communications advice to clients.
She is responsible for developing and delivering the London DE&I strategy with the support of the DE&I Steering Group, a team comprised of senior members of the agency representing different communities and priority areas. Most recently, and in collaboration with Creative Access, the team launched ‘The Language of Discrimination’ report exploring the issue of accent bias in the creative industries.
Prior to joining the team at FleishmanHillard, Antoinette spent over ten years advising professional services organisations on their PR and reputation management, including seven years at a magic circle law firm in London, where she ran the media relations and crisis management programmes for the litigation practice. She transitioned into her role as a DE&I consultant at the start of 2020 in response to the increasing need for diversity and inclusion professionals with strategic communications experience.