The Sutton Trust, campaigners for social mobility, have recently published a report on the prevalence of accent discrimination in the UK, based on new research. The report identifies that accent is a primary signal of social economic status, but also an indicator of many other aspects of a person’s social background, including their gender, race, age and sexuality.
The report recognises that there exists a hierarchy of accent prestige in the UK, with Received Pronunciation (RP), also known as the Queen’s (King's?) English, being the dominant accent in positions of authority across the media, politics, the civil service, courtrooms and the corporate sector. This is despite less than 10% of the population estimated to have this accent, almost exclusively from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Accents associated with industrial cities of England, like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham (commonly stereotyped as "working class accents") and ethnic minority accents (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) are the lowest ranked according to research.
The report’s findings show evidence of the deep entrenchment of an accent hierarchy in the UK along with indications that this directly affects fair access to elite professions. Recent research shows that, when evaluating candidates’ performance, interviewers in the UK can be influenced by the candidates’ accents. Many individuals with lower ranked accents need to work harder to prove their worth and also report a pressure to change their accent in order to be accepted in their chosen profession. Changing accents will maintain an over-representation of RP in contexts of authority and places added cognitive pressure on a subset of social groups who are likely already to be facing disadvantage of other kinds.
Employers are advised to take seriously instances of accent discrimination in their workforce. They should aim to have a range of accents within their organisation, and not require or encourage their employees to adopt RP in the workplace. They should combat any implicit expectation that professionalism is signalled by sounding like a person from a certain region, socio-economic background, or who has had a public school education. This middle-class norm is not equally accessible to all and creates serious inequality. Employers should also take into account work-associated social settings: accent-related commentary and mockery are highest in social settings, and this can compromise a person’s sense of belonging in a given professional environment.