Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

My experience with ‘accent bias’ at university

If you are anything like me, the first thing that people notice about you when they meet you is your accent. I wouldn’t say that an Essex accent is the most exciting or intriguing accent in the world, but it certainly makes you stand out at Warwick, where almost everyone appears to be particularly ‘well-spoken’. I am certainly not complaining about my accent – I love the way I speak, and I am proud of where I’m from, but whilst there are certainly perks to standing out from the crowd, having an accent like mine can have its detriments too.

I recently came across an article shared on LinkedIn about ‘accent bias’, entitled ‘Want to Earn More Money? Polish Your Accent’. The article stated that individuals in the UK with regional accents were likely to earn on average a fifth less than those with perceived ‘standard’ accents. This is approximately the same as the wage gap between women and men in the UK. As you can imagine, as a woman from Essex, I was not particularly thrilled to read this.

Of course, the gap in earnings between those with ‘standard’ accents, and those with regional accents may result from a wide range of factors. Those working inside of London will typically earn more money than those outside of London, and this could be seen as a contributing factor to the gap in earnings.

When people hear that I’m studying a politics degree, they appear shocked

Yet the truth is, people do make judgements based on the way that others speak, and this could certainly impact individuals in the working world when it comes to obtaining roles and promotions. Statistics show that individuals with northern accents are perceived to be more friendly, and are therefore often successful in customer service roles, but not in authoritative roles.

Studies have shown that those from Birmingham give off a worse impression by speaking than if they were to say nothing at all and the Essex accent is also often associated with a lack of intelligence. I can certainly vouch for this. Occasionally when people hear that I’m studying a politics degree, they appear shocked.  

Given the fact that there is clearly a level of bias towards certain accents, I am not at all surprised that there is a demand for ‘accent softening’ or ‘accent reduction’ courses in the UK. The London Speech Workshop and City Academy are organisations which offer courses to help people obtain a more ‘neutral accent’. These organisations claim to support people in ‘speaking clearly’ and ‘increasing their confidence’, yet to me, they appear to just aim to strip people of their natural accent.

I often find myself attempting to ‘tone down’ my accent

I’m sure many of you with accents, whether regional or international, have, like me, felt compelled to ‘tone it down’ before an important presentation, or interview so as to not face judgement. I often find myself attempting to ‘tone down’ my accent at university as it’s hard to put your point across with confidence when people are comparing you to Gemma Collins in their head – although people often forget that Gemma Collins is an extremely successful entertainer and businesswoman.

Accent bias is not only a regional issue but could certainly be seen to interplay with issues of racial prejudice. A satirical film called Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley outlines the story of a black man working in a call centre, who is struggling to be successful with his customers because of the way that he speaks. Boots Riley makes a valuable statement through his work: that accent bias is just another bias which appears to compound the pre-existing inequalities created within society by discrimination based upon certain perceptions.

Like many other prejudices that are held within society, accent bias is just another one that we must work to overcome. Of course, individuals with Northern accents have the potential to excel in authoritative roles, we benefit from the things that those from Birmingham have to say, and individuals from Essex, regardless of the role they choose to pursue, should not be immediately dismissed as unintelligent. Perhaps instead of learning to ‘tone down’ our accents, society needs to learn to ‘tone down’ its prejudice.

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