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What does your accent say about you?

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Fahy Sheila
Sheila Fahy

PSL Counsel

London

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04 November 2022

Would you change your accent to be accepted, or to gain an advantage?

Absolutely! Back in the day when I was a teenager, I endlessly practised a “cockney” accent to get in with a crowd of boys, one of whom had taken my fancy. I think many people would answer similarly but possibly for different reasons.

Most of us instinctively know that the UK has a hierarchy of accent prestige, which has been alive and kicking for centuries. Received Pronunciation (or BBC English) sits at the top, while accents from the industrial cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, as well as Afro-Caribbean and Indian ethnic accents are ranked the lowest. So says research published yesterday by the Sutton Trust on accents and social mobility. 

Is accent a protected characteristic?

No, accent is not protected under equality laws in the UK unless it can be linked to race, which includes ethnicity and national origins. This means that if someone is not hired because of their, for example, Scottish accent, they may be able to bring a discrimination claim, whereas a job candidate with a “cockney” accent would have no recourse.

What actions can employers take?

As accent is recognised as the primary indicator of social-economic status, so employers with an eye to this in their DE&I strategy may want to consider the following. These are recommended to all employers by the Sutton Trust, but particularly for those in elite professions, HR teams and universities:

  • action to tackle accent bias should be part of a wider strategy to improve socio-economic diversity within the workplace;
  • recruiters should undergo training to reduce reliance on accents to infer skills: the report provides a short paragraph to read before a recruitment task;
  • aim to have a range of accents within the workplace;
  • tackle any expectation that professionalism is signalled by a person from a certain region, background or education;
  • target workplace social settings, as the highest number of accent-related incidents occur in social settings.

As the research points out, talent is everywhere in the UK, but opportunities are not, and many feel “they need to work harder to prove their worth, just because of how they speak”. And even if it works, it is an unnecessary hurdle, although I am very happy to report that I am now married to someone with a cockney accent.

 

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