As a working class woman from Teesside, moving to the south of England to attend university at Oxbridge meant adjusting to a world in which very few people spoke like me. Sadly, and similar to the experiences of many northern students at elite universities, I was subject to bullying from my peers.
During the pandemic, when jobs are scarce and youth unemployment is on the rise, I find myself becoming more aware of my northern twang. The worst I’ve faced is interviewers’ shock that the person they’d imagined my CV belonged to is greeting them with an “Ohrite”, but many have had far worse in the workplace – all because of the way they speak.
A recent report on “access bias” compiled by the University of York and Queen Mary University of London found that “British people tend to downgrade non-standard working class accents and selected ethnic minority accents, and upgrade accents historically perceived as more prestigious.” In fact, attitudes towards British accents remain largely unchanged from 50 years ago, with Received Pronunciation (RP) given the most prestige.
The researchers conclude that while accent bias is weaker in professional contexts, the way in which a job candidate speaks is “still likely to influence how [they are] perceived”.
I spoke to some people about how accent bias has impacted them in the workplace.
“He chose to humiliate me in front of his whole department”
Though I’m not working at the moment, I’ve worked in factories in the north east for a few years and I’m used to harsh workplace banter. I love a laugh and am all for it, but the daily ribbing of my accent, which derives from a different northern town to that of the majority of my former colleagues, was just relentless. It started out as just one person, but eventually it became a group thing and ended in about a dozen people doing it.
They’d mimic the way I said things and tell me “to go back to the scums until you learn how to speak”. My supervisor, upset with some work I’d done, once said to me, “If you don’t start pronouncing ‘t’s in the middle of words, you’re going to be making them for the whole factory.” This one hurt the most, because he knew he couldn’t pull rank over my particular role, so he chose to humiliate me in front of his whole department instead. Everyone laughed at me.
I needed people to take my job seriously, so when a whole department was shown by their supervisor that he didn’t, they weren’t going to take me seriously when I told them to do something. It really hurt. Louise*.
“You sound like the Black version of Peter Kay”
When I was in my twenties and applying for graduate schemes, I finally landed an interview in London at a finance firm. Having grown up in the north west, I have a strong accent. During my interview, one of the panel members said, “You sound like the Black version of Peter Kay”.
I laughed it off at the time but reflecting back, it’s clear they were mocking my accent, and I didn’t get onto the scheme. Although I laughed then, I’m now keenly aware that there’s a level of judgement that just isn’t humorous. Lee.
“She told me I should really try and practice talking in a less Yorkshire accent because it made me sound ‘thick’”
When I was a 25-year-old reporter in London, so still a bit green around the ears, I had a really thick South Yorkshire accent that, though it’s less strong now I’m still really proud of. I’d been living in London for around five years and my deputy editor at the time was a very posh lady – her mother was a viscount – and she spoke “proper”.
I was having to report on a pretty middle and upper class industry, and in one of my first meetings with her, she told me I should really try and practice talking in a less Yorkshire accent because it made me sound “thick” and that the people who I was talking to would either be “put off” or “get bored” of what I was talking about.
I was too young and scared to argue, so I said I’d do it. I didn’t though, and no one else ever said anything negative about my accent or really gave a shit. Neil.
“I’ve been made to feel like my accent dictates my intelligence so many times”
As a student, the first time I heard anyone in the professional position I’d like to be in one day was during a talk organised by my course. It actually blew my mind that someone who sounded like me could succeed so exceptionally. It was such an encouraging moment for me, as most people usually sound quite posh.
I usually talk without my accent, which is from the Welsh valleys, when networking so I fit in, and to avoid having to repeat myself a dozen times to be understood. I’ve been made to feel like my accent dictates my intelligence so many times. Someone once mistook me for catering staff at a networking event after they heard me speak. Being made to repeat myself four or five times when asking questions and then being laughed at for the way my voice forms certain words in front of other professionals has really affected me. Chelsea.
“Hide the silver”
I’d just arrived at the new office of my job in Canary Wharf at a FTSE-100 company. It was a massive building and I was taking up the role of global director of a particular department. As I walked through the doors, the security guard on shift at the time heard my Scouse accent and thought it would be funny to radio 50 employees saying, “Hide the silver!” Guess who didn’t keep their job? John*.
*Names have been changed.
Editor’s note 21/10/2020: The introduction to this piece was amended to better reflect the author’s experiences at university.