Attitudes to voices

Do different accents affect the public’s opinion of professional ability?
We asked over 1000 members of the British public to listen to ten mock interview answers, and to assess the speaker's suitability for a job in a law firm.

Overview

Following on from the national survey on accent labels, we examined the effect of five commonly spoken UK accents on perceptions of professional competence among the UK public. It allowed us to both document the general prevalence of accent bias, and to examine which demographic factors play a role in the extent of bias. 

People who participated in the survey heard 10 responses to job interview questions. After each answer they were asked to rate the candidate’s hireability and expertise. Respondents also completed a short questionnaire about their own social and linguistic backgrounds, and their beliefs about cultural diversity. 

Does age affect our judgement?

The two graphs below show the average (estimated mean rating) evaluation of each of our five accents by two very different age groups (based on a scale of 1-10).

Full description

This survey examines the effect of five regional accents  on perceptions of professional aptitude among members of the UK public. Carried out via a dedicated website, it allowed us to document the general prevalence of accent bias in the UK, and the extent to which these effects vary according to region, age, social class, gender, or psychological profile.

In addition to building our knowledge base about attitudes to accents in the UK, the cross-UK patterns we found were a crucial foundation for interpreting any trends observed when examining attitudes in the legal profession.

Participants: who took part in our survey?

Participants in the national survey were a large stratified sample of individuals (over 1,100) representing the demographic balance of the UK population. 

They were recruited with the help of a professional market research company, which allowed us to obtain a large and more balanced sample of respondents. 

Participants ranged in age from 18 to 79 and included a representative number of people in England (890), Wales (51), Scotland (90), and Northern Ireland (31). The sample was balanced for gender and included all major ethnic groups. 

Audio stimuli: what recordings did we use?

The participants heard 10 short mock answers to typical questions in law firm job interviews. The clips were 20 seconds in length.

The mock answers were developed by the researchers in coordination with senior professionals in the legal sector (including one co-investigator and the lawyers on the Advisory Board). All the answers were pre-tested by a group of 25 lawyers unrelated to the project. 

The answer texts were in a formal register using standard grammar, regardless of accent, to approximate an interview style. The texts were recorded by 10 young men (18-25 years old) – two native speakers of each of the five accents – resulting in a total of 100 recordings.

Men’s voices were used to avoid potential confounding effects of gender stereotypes. We recorded two speakers per accent to control for individual speaker effects. The recordings were pre-tested with trained linguists to ensure that they accurately represent the accents in question, and that they sound like natural and fluent examples of formal speech.

Procedure: how was the survey carried out?

Via the website, survey respondents were presented with 10 audio clips of mock answers to rate. After hearing each recording, participants rated the candidate’s overall performance, knowledge, suitability, and hireability on a 10-point Likert scale, responding to the following questions:

  • “How well did the candidate answer the question?”
  • “Do you think this candidate is likely to have the knowledge and expertise needed for the job?”
  • “Do you think this person has the right attitude to work for your organisation?”
  • “How likely would you be to hire this candidate?”

Audio stimuli were pseudo-randomised, so that each participant heard two versions of each accent, and no answer or speaker more than once. 

Once participants finished rating the answers, they provided information about their personal background (including gender, ethnicity, age, region of origin, highest level of education, occupation, English accent, languages spoken). They then completed a short questionnaire about their exposure to different UK accents, the diversity of their own social networks, their beliefs about bias in Britain, and a set of psychological measures such as their level of concern about being perceived as prejudiced.

Sharing our results with the public

We provide a short summary of our main results of this study here. We also compare these attitudes to real voices to people’s attitudes to accent in other contexts (accent labels; accents at work) 

Detailed results will appear in scholarly publications. Our project is also developing interactive training materials on language and unconscious bias that can be used by a range of beneficiaries, including university students in law or other professional career paths, HR professionals, law firms, and the general public. 

These materials can help people become familiar with how accent bias works, what current attitudes to accent in the UK look like, how legal professionals of different seniorities perform in a hiring task, and what the consequences of unconscious accent bias can be. We provide hands-on audio exercises to give users a real-life experience of the challenge of ignoring accent preferences and ensuring fair hiring practices.