Do Our Accents Really Affect Our Careers?

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
This month marks the two year anniversary of when I moved from my hometown of Liverpool to London. From Liverpool, along with my hair rollers, I brought with me a northern, heart-on-my-sleeve candidness and an ability to endlessly find humour in most things. Inevitably, I also brought my Scouse accent – something that has never quite left my side. I speak with the same idioms and intonations as the family and friends I grew up with in Liverpool, meaning that I have a strong emotional attachment to my accent. And yet, since I've been in London, several instances have thrown my relationship with my accent into conflict. When I worked at a glossy fashion magazine I was asked to tone down my accent when I was on camera interviewing people, because "it wasn’t on brand" for their middle to upper class audience. At another publication, working on the fashion desk, my line manager made comments about how "people who speak like you [me]" don't really know much about fashion, and how it surprised him that I had "ended up" in the industry. Now, I love London, I love living here and I love my London born-and-bred friends, but since I've been in the city, time and time again, my northern accent has landed me in a position where I haven't been taken seriously in the workplace. At this juncture, let me say that while I might not have the sort of British accent you would hear in a Hollywood film featuring Emily Blunt, my voice is clear and I speak articulately and concisely; after all, I'm a writer – words and the English language are one of my passions in life.

38% of Brits feel they have experienced prejudice over the way they speak – both personally and professionally

Research shows that I'm not alone in feeling discriminated against. A survey conducted by ITV/ComRes asked more than 6000 adults from across the UK about their experiences with regional accents and found that a staggering 38% of Brits feel they have experienced prejudice over the way they speak – both personally and professionally. ITV found that "prejudice about accents is alive and well" and that it most often thrives "along the north-south, 'us and them' fault-lines of old." Backing up these findings, law firm Peninsula discovered that eight in ten employers admit to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents.
Francesca Turner is a National Careers Service adviser. She explains that experts have found that the discrimination doesn’t actually come from how people sound when they talk, but from what the listener associates with their accent. For example, the southern accent and the ‘Queen’s English’ reigns supreme with employers, as you’re more likely to associate that particular tone with wealth, good education, well-roundedness and strong family values. Indeed, while renounced pronunciation came out of ITV's research as voted to be the most "intelligent" and "trustworthy" accent, the Liverpool accent came out as least "intelligent" and "trustworthy", as well as getting ranked "least friendly" by those surveyed.

My colleague asked me if I could really know that much about culture because I was from Liverpool

These might be social perceptions, but their consequences are all too real. Looking back on my career so far, it is clear to see I have been "the only northerner in the village" in almost all of the offices I have worked in. Working as a features writer on a culture desk, my colleague asked me if I could really know that much about culture because I was from Liverpool. When I worked in showbiz journalism, my former editor asked my desk if anyone wanted to do the voiceover for our celebrity red-carpet videos, and when no one volunteered, I put myself forward. However, when I did so, he quickly explained that he didn't actually mean me, because my accent "was simply not professional." I recall him making the noises "dey do doe, don’t dey doe" whenever I would speak – and not in a jokey manner either.
This prejudice made me feel like I couldn’t speak up in meetings. It's also meant that I have tried to ‘shush up’ my voice a little, the ‘shushing’ being training my singsongy speech to slow down, and kissing goodbye to beloved Scouse slang like ‘boss’ around the office. Francesca explained to me that, for the same reason, elocution lessons are on the rise in the UK, with many seeking lessons doing so to soften their regional twang in the hopes that it will increase their job prospects. ITV's research also discovered that children are beginning to feel self-conscious of their voices too; young boys they interviewed in Middlesborough reportedly told the news channel, "We sound right scruffy like [...] We won’t be able to get proper jobs."
It's disappointing that in a time where this generation of Britons' worldview is dubbed the most historically diverse it's ever been – thanks to equality movements, increased immigration and media globalisation – if you switch on the BBC, you’re incredibly unlikely to hear any accent other than a posh English one presenting the news. The fact that our TV screens are ruled by southern speakers in the media, politics and the establishment, only reinforces the sense that this is the "proper way to speak." Surely we should have learnt by now that a different accent can make you stand out from the crowd. We've seen regional accents heighten the careers of icons like Cilla Black, Ant and Dec, Tom Jones and Julie Walters. Isn't it time for a wider cultural shift, to account for more of these voices?

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