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Accent Bias and the Myth of Meritocracy


Antoinette Willcocks, director, head of DE&I at FleishmanHillard reflects on their newest research dubbed ‘The Language of Discrimination’ and why accent bias is so deeply embedded in the creative industries, writes LBB's Zoe Antonov

Accent Bias and the Myth of Meritocracy

“Since the formation of received pronunciation (RP), the link between accent and class has become entrenched. The notion is that educated people speak in RP, while other accents are conflated with impropriety, poor education and even low intelligence.” Words by Jasmine Andersson, BBC journalist and co-founder of The 2nd Source. 

Although a common term, it turns out that many aren’t quite sure what ‘received pronunciation’ is, or there might not be a clear consensus. Sometimes described as ‘typical British’ and others as ‘the Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’, none of these really hit the nail on the head of what received pronunciation actually is - and even less so what societal prejudices it carries. According to the British Library, received pronunciation is an accent and not a dialect and all of the above mentioned terms trying to define it are misleading for various reasons. The BBC is no longer restricted to one type of accent, and Queen Elizabeth II spoke in ‘an almost unique form of English’ incomparable with what most people believe RP to be. Since RP is not a dialect, it carries no clues about the speaker’s geographical background, but always reveals ‘a great deal about their social and educational backgrounds’.

Also, according to estimates by the British Library, a mere 3% of the UK population speak in received pronunciation, even though it is described as the most standard type of spoken English. What are the chances all 3% work in advertising?

That’s exactly what PR agency FleishmanHillard UK and Creative Access, a leading social enterprise specialising in diversity and inclusion across the creative industries, wanted to find out, among others. The product of this collaboration is a comprehensive study named ‘The Language of Discrimination’, which breaks apart and delves into the ways in which creatives are not only not allowed into the industry because of an accent that ‘reveals’ a lower socioeconomic status, but are often circumstantially forced to hide their accents or are stumped in their career growth because of it. At LBB, we recently spoke to Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation to find out what is advertising’s problem with working class people. So today, we take a deep dive into another layer of the issue - the vast world of accent bias - with FleishmanHillard, discussing its insightful findings and what the creative industries need to do to escape them.

For reference, the report drew on a survey of 301 members of the Creative Access community, and a national survey of 2,000 British adults based on age, gender, region, ethnicity, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. The research was deemed necessary, as there has not been a clear focus on the issue of accent bias and although conversation around DE&I is gaining speed, it doesn’t seem to be abating. 

Antoinette Willcocks, director, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at FleishmanHillard, says there has been a growing call for more focus on social mobility as an issue within DE&I, especially in the UK. “Everybody has a social background and some level of economic status,” she says. “It’s not easy to ignore and we shouldn’t ignore it. What we realise now is that accent is a key indicator when it comes to social background and when we look at the broader industry, there is a real issue of under-representation when it comes to socioeconomic diversity.” Those issues that unravel themselves when we focus on the representation of talented individuals from working class families became the foundation of the research, which tried to get a handle on what is quite a complex issue. The issue being accent as another dimension of the DE&I discussion and how we can explore it better.

When it comes to prejudice within retention and recruitment, Antoinette believes both are a serious problem, but the onus falls on retention more so, or building an environment where people from working class backgrounds or varying geographical backgrounds can thrive regardless of their accent. Looking at the research, a whopping 89% of respondents said they believe that others have made subconscious judgements about them based on how they speak and 87% agreed that there are barriers to entry in the sector linked to your accent and use of language. So what can employers and companies do to increase their retention for those affected?

“What you see in DE&I time and time again, when thinking about how you retain talent from underrepresented groups in your organisation, is a strategy that focuses solely on race, or on disability, or on socioeconomic status, or whatever else it might be,” starts Antoinette. But trying to tackle each of these aspects in their individual silos is an unrealistic way to approach any situation, because nobody is solely an ethnic minority or is just from a working class background. “All of these characteristics intersect with one another and so hopefully we’ll start to see this reflected in how organisations approach their DE&I work.”

Typically, one might see a mentoring program aimed specifically at somebody from a lower socioeconomic background, or training on empowering ethnic minority talent. In reality, if you’re an organisation that wants to retain and progress talent from under-represented groups, you also need to understand how the systems, processes and ways of working in your organisation may be creating barriers for people from these communities. “You need to identify what the key drivers are for career success in your organisation and try to understand why they are working for some groups but not others. It’s about unpicking the myth of meritocracy.” Data will give you a good understanding of the makeup of your business at all levels and so where you see patterns forming – for example an over representation of people from fee-paying schools in the most senior positions – you can focus your attention on why this is. “Is it because of good quality sponsorship, access to career-enhancing opportunities or to the best clients that has propelled certain groups forward?” ask Antoinette.

When you have that worked out, you need to make sure that these same things work for everybody in your organisation. “You need to focus on how to put equity at the heart of how people experience life and their careers in your organisation because we cannot continue to throw interventions at people from minority groups in the hope that they will start to better fit the existing mould. Talent exists in all communities in all levels of business, it’s just that the systems we’re asking people to operate in often are not working for them.” 

What stood out the most to Antoinette was how entrenched the perceived link between accent and intelligence is. “The idea that someone’s accent is any kind of indicator of how intelligent they are is just appalling to me.” This is why, according to her, employers and companies need to use pieces of research like this one to challenge themselves and the decisions they make as businesses, as well as their talent functions and talent progression mechanisms. 

Those kinds of prejudices inevitably lead to code switching - willingly changing one’s accent, dialect or way of speaking in order to blend in. 60% of the Creative Access community that was surveyed agreed that they had to change their accents to progress in their career, while 35% were told they need to change them when speaking to customers or clients. To Antoinette, nobody should feel that way. But when you look to the top and hear only one type of speaking, it’s understandable why one would try to match. “Although we see an over saturation of people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds in the industry, it’s not everyone and there is real power in seeing role models that are like you.” She explains “We need to find a way to showcase the role models we do have and celebrate the difference that currently exists.” 

Code switching is also psychologically draining for those who feel the need to do it. In an environment which can already be quite demanding and high in pressure, as well as fast paced, to have to put your words and the way you speak through an internal filter is tiring. It adds an extra level of exhaustion, which is where the issue of retention is at its peak. “People don’t want to do this. I would want to work somewhere where I can be myself and would be measured on the quality of what I say and the quality of the work that I produce, not how I say it or what my body language is like. At some point people decide it isn’t worth the effort. Which is where you lose a lot of talent.”

In comes the concept of ‘belonging’ which to Antoinette should be just as important and heavy as diversity, equity and inclusion. “We think of terms like diversity, inclusion and equity as a bit of a catch-all, but they’re not. Belonging is actually really important as well. Out of all the places you’ve worked, the ones where you felt the happiest and most secure are most likely also those where you did your best work.” Having to code switch erodes the harmony of these things. Code switching affects productivity and quality of work, which leads to bad feedback or losing opportunities, which further affects the constructed narrative and completely disintegrates any belonging the person could have felt - this is the edge at which people fall out of the industry.

For example, Antoinette believes that it is paramount that people who are in senior roles within the industry learn to give proper feedback based on something workable. “The emphasis needs to be on performance, not polish. If you are a line manager or giving feedback to a colleague, your feedback should be actionable and not based on someone’s personal characteristics like accent or style of speaking.” On the flip side, employees should also be able to feel empowered if they come from a working class background. This is why pieces of research like this one prove to be so important - they allow people who are affected by these numbers to better understand what the issue is and call it out when they experience it. “The conversations that we’ve been having over the last few years about microaggressions and race have empowered people from ethnic minority backgrounds who have experienced these microaggressions in the workplace since time immemorial to call them out. Until very recently, the language didn’t really exist to call it out.” 

So, research like this can give people the tools to identify their issue and perhaps the courage to speak about it - but how do we make sure that these conversations do not become echo chambers and actually reach those in power? For Antoinette, the challenge is perpetual, but employers and C-suite dwellers need to understand that it is how seriously they take these conversations that shows what kind of organisation they are. More than ever before, people looking for a job consider DE&I one of the most important pillars of the workplace they would choose and according to Antoinette, one can always tell when the commitment to it is genuine or performative.

That commitment, when it comes to DE&I, is often derived from the make-up of your own business, but it is also be about the work you produce and whether it resonates with audiences and in society. “We know that our industry isn’t representative of the society we operate in,” Antoinette says. “There are very few organisations that are representative of the makeup of the city. Being able to communicate and engage with these audiences in a meaningful and authentic way, means having people in your business with diverse experiences and perspectives.” 

To CEOs, Antoinette has one message: “Listen to the community.” As you rise through the ranks, according to her, it can be easy to forget what it was like when you were a junior, or to write off someone else’s experience if it isn’t one you’ve had. That’s why listening is paramount, not only to the people, but also to the data, because it paints a powerful and important picture about the makeup of the industry. And to those who might be struggling with any of the aforementioned issues, Antoinette is reassuring: “It might sound like a cliché but there is real power in authenticity and leaning into what makes you different. Find a community – perhaps an ERG or a group with shared interests – a mentor, or a sponsor as these are all things that can help you understand, leverage and feel proud about what makes you different from the crowd.”

Antoinette knows that a lot of progress has been achieved in the past few years when it comes to other similar conversations, for example in the context of race and ethnicity. She leaves us with this: “My hope for the future would be that we see considerations around equity and inclusion as part of every facet, system and process within organisations. Baked into how we all work, and not simply the preservation of the minority communities and DE&I teams, I want to see talented people from all backgrounds get the chance to do the work they are more than qualified to do and their fair chance to succeed is just a given.”

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FleishmanHillard UK, Mon, 27 Mar 2023 15:29:43 GMT