Why an ‘Accent Bias in Britain’ project?

Despite the pivotal role accent plays as an indicator of social and ethnic background in the UK, and a chronic stagnation in social mobility over the last 30 years, we know surprisingly little about the relationship between accent and life outcomes. The Accent Bias in Britain project aims to address this.

The problem of Accent Bias

All social groups develop accent differences over time. Because accents are often linked to specific regions, cultures, ages, genders, and social classes, they tend to trigger social stereotypes. Creating stereotypes is a universal aspect of human cognition and not itself a problem, but when such associations become evaluative they can have a negative effect. 

In the UK, a long history of class-based social hierarchy has also led to a hierarchy of accents, with some considered to be more prestigious and desirable than others. 

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 high prestige contexts, and further stigmatising their accent.

Key junctures of social mobility are of particular concern – for example school admission, university admission, access to elite professions – and unequal outcomes for certain minority groups have been widely reported at these junctures in the UK. 

As accent is not protected by the Equality Act 2010, it can function as a proxy for other forms of discrimination, for example against ethnic, class, or regional groups.

A barrier to social mobility?

Social mobility has been remarkably stagnant in Britain since 1970, and language may well be one of the primary cultural practices through which mobility and socioeconomic success is obstructed. 

A 2006 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that a majority of employers admitted to discriminating against applicants on the basis of their accents, while only 3% of employers nationally include accent or dialect differences as a protected characteristic

Similarly, a recent study commissioned by the Social Mobility Commission found that working-class candidates are often unable to gain access to elite professions – despite having the relevant qualifications and skills – because of informal ‘poshness tests’,  such as a candidate’s style of speaking.

A 2006 survey of employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found the following:

Employers who admitted discriminating on the basis of accent
Employers who include accent as a protected category

Accent and discrimination

Accent and dialect have always played a central role in structuring British society and determining socioeconomic prospects. 

This role in signalling class, education and ethnicity can foster dangerously inaccurate public discourse about the language of minority groups (for example David Starkey equating “Jamaican patois” with “violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture”, BBC Newsnight 12/08/11). 

Natural language variation and change can be obscured by social and political ideology, and this can lead to unconsciously discriminatory behaviour.

A lack of research

Compared with the United States, to date the UK has seen little research on accent in professional contexts, or the role it plays in unequal social and economic outcomes. Most research into bias in hiring in the UK has focused on wider social factors such as ethnicity and schooling.

For example, Heath & Cheung (2006) found worse outcomes for ethnic minority groups in terms of employment, rate of pay, and level of work attained, even while keeping education profile and age constant. 

In a field experiment, Wood et al. (2009) submitted matched job applications and confirmed a significant ethnic bias, with greater evidence of bias in private rather than public sector employment. Rates of admission to elite universities also differ by ethnicity despite identical school-leaving results.

In the UK, accent is known to be the primary signal for many social attributes, especially class, ethnicity, education, and region. As a legally permissible form of overt discrimination, accent can function as a proxy for other forms of discrimination (Lippi-Green 1997). 

However, almost all studies of bias in recruiting have failed to examine the specific role of accent. There is a clear need for a better understanding of the role of accent-based bias as a barrier to social mobility.

Examining attitudes to real speech

The field of sociolinguistics has examined general attitudes to some UK accents, but this literature is surprisingly limited. 

Several studies have identified systematic (dis)preferences for certain accents, but these surveys have only asked about named language varieties, rather than having listeners respond to actual audio stimuli. Studies that have examined real speech have tended to look at attitudes to isolated varieties or isolated linguistic features. 

To date, there has been little systematic examination of attitudes to different accents as they are actually spoken in contemporary Britain.

The effects of accent in professional contexts

Even less work exists on attitudes to accents in the workplace. Early matched-guise studies in this area have been small in scale. 

For example, Giles et al. (1975) found that even when all other aspects of communication are kept “standard” (i.e., grammar, lexis, speaking style), a speaker with a Birmingham accent was judged to be less intelligent and less appropriate for a job as a university lecturer than a Received Pronunciation speaker.

Similarly, Kalin et al. (1980) found that English English was preferred in employment interviews over (standard) West Indian English, while Giles, Wilson & Conway (1981) report that the lowest status jobs are seen as most suitable for speakers with non-standard accents (more recently, see Alemoru 2015 for Multicultural London English). 

Qualitative studies have noted discrimination against non-native accents in the workplace even when comprehension or communicative effectiveness were not in question (Roberts, Davies & Jupp 1992), and self-suppression of regional accents for employment purposes (Baratta 2015). 

Our project extends this research by looking at attitudes to major accents in England, changing attitudes across age groups, attitudes to new urban dialects, and how accent interferes with assessments of professional ability.

Assessing if accent bias affects judgement

The majority of studies in the United States that have examined accent bias in hiring have reported simple accent effects, e.g. average differences in ratings on such scales as “competence” or “hireability”.

While such findings are informative, they cannot tell us the extent to which those preferences interfere with the judging of objective competence. The Accent Bias in Britain project uses a design that targets this.

The project follows some recent studies that have adopted a more sophisticated design to track contextual or conditional effects in accent bias. 

Wang et al. (2009) found that in mock customer service encounters, US raters judged the service provided to be of lower quality when the service provider spoke with an Indian (vs. American or British) accent; crucially, this effect worsened when the requested service was unavailable (an effect also found in Tombs & Rao Hill 2013) but improved when more explicit information about the unavailability of the service was provided.

In the field of economics, a further type of research design looks at how bias interacts with judgements of the quality of an application (e.g. Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004). We adopt this approach in our study.

Finally, most prior studies do not assess psychological or social sources for bias in raters, often because they do not collect detailed information about raters. Again, the design of the Accent Bias in Britain project addresses this.