July 23, 2024

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Why tackling accent bias matters at work

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If the polls are to be believed, the UK parliament is going to look quite different after the July 4 general election. But there might also be a big change in the way it sounds.

The last election in 2019 produced a parliament dominated by Conservative party MPs and 69 per cent of them spoke RP, Received Pronunciation, or BBC English, the accent long deemed the most prestigious in the UK.

Among the Conservatives’ Labour party opponents, however, only 37 per cent spoke like this.

With some polls predicting a Labour landslide, the halls of Westminster could soon ring with very different sounds.

Yet one aspect of parliament will probably stay the same. If history is a guide, the new crop of MPs will still sound posher than the people who elected them, because less than 10 per cent of the British population speak RP.

I was surprised by this number, probably because I spend a lot of time listening to British newsreaders, ministers, executives, lawyers and other members of the professional classes, where RP is rampant.

But I was given all the figures above by a reliable source: a professor of linguistics I came across recently named Devyani Sharma. 

She is one of the academics behind Accent Bias Britain, a research project set up in 2017 to examine accent discrimination in the workplace and she has some unexpectedly good news.

Employers may still judge the owner of a working class accent more harshly than an RP speaker but the project’s work suggests the impact fades once people are made aware of the problem.

More saliently, the number of top employers asking for accent bias training is increasing to the point that Sharma, who does corporate workshops based on the project’s research, is struggling to keep up with demand. 

When I spoke to her, she had just done one session for a big Wall Street bank and another for a top City law firm — not her…

2024-06-16 00:00:08

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