Talking accent bias at UKREiiF

Seminar / 10 June 2024

Earlier this year, Real Estate Balance member Shepherd and Wedderburn approached us about exploring the under-explored topic of accent bias and the challenges people with regional or international accents may have to overcome to enter our industry and progress in their careers.

We thought it was a fascinating topic and were pleased to work with our members and EG to hold the session in Leeds on the Transforming Government Property Pavilion at this year’s UKREiiF conference.

The UK is one of, if not the most, diverse English-speaking country when it comes to accents. “Traditional” accents like Brummie, Cockney, Geordie and Scouse are fused with newer accents like British Asian English, Multicultural London English, General Northern English and more in our linguistical landscape.

Our long history of a class-based social structure is also borne out in a hierarchy of accents, with some considered to be more prestigious and desirable than others, with Received Pronunciation – the so-called Queen’s English – and the Estuary English originating in the Home Counties frequently found in surveys to be the most desirable.

We brought together the property professionals listed below and pictured above (from left to right) who represent different countries and regions of the UK to share their experiences and insights into accent and how it can impact careers:

  • Tim Burke – Deputy Editor, EG (Moderator)
  • Rav Cheema – Associate Director, Estates Efficiency, LocatED, and REB Policy and Campaigns Committee member
  • Paula McLeay – Programme Director for Places for Growth, Cabinet Office
  • Emma Guthrie – Partner, Property and Infrastructure, Shepherd and Wedderburn, and REB NextGen co-Chair
  • Sue Brown – REB Managing Director

Tim started the discussion by asking the panellists about their own accents.

Rav, who grew up in the Midlands, spoke about learning to speak around the same time as his father was learning English, and how when he was a teenager his father would ask Rav, as a native English speaker in the family, to sometimes speak on the telephone for him.

Like Rav, being asked to take part in this discussion took Paula back to her formative years, and specifically moving from the Welsh Valleys to Cardiff as an eleven-year-old and being asked by a teacher whether she felt she sounded less clever than others because of how she spoke.

Another worrying experience with teachers was shared by Londoner Sue, who despite being a very high achiever at a grammar school for girls was told that she would not be able to become a lawyer without elocution lessons – lessons which did not work and which her father jokingly resented the £6.50 per term cost of.

Sue changed her mind about a career in the law, but Emma shared how moving from to Edinburgh from a different part of central Scotland to study the subject led her to subconsciously change her accent to assimilate in her new surroundings. Upon reflection, she said this was likely because she was lacking in confidence about her ability to do the course and wanted to show that she belonged in that environment.

Research by her alma mater in 2022 actually found that 30% of university students and 29% of university applicants reported being mocked, criticised or singled out in educational settings as a result of their accents, and 25% of professionals reported the same in work settings.

You remember these moments when you have been judged not for what you say, but for the way you have said it, and then you trace that through your career and the extent to which you have felt comfortable or uncomfortable by virtue of the way you speak – not your intelligence, not the content, but literally the way it sounds. That is quite shocking and makes it very important to have this conversation.

Paula McLeay

Tim then asked the panel about their experiences of accent bias in the workplace, and shared that early in his career a colleague was told that their Black Country accent would hinder their chances of landing a journalism job in London. At the time, Tim wondered whether he would have higher hurdles to clear if he had inherited his mother’s Cornish accent.

Sue carried on working for a business she sold to an American company earlier in her career. She spoke about how her new colleagues across the pond found it very difficult to understand her accent, which led to an uncomfortable working environment for her.

Paula said that over the years she had been singled out and made fun of at work because of her accent, and while she had chosen to take it gently and without offence, people would have made assumptions, potentially incorrect ones, about her because of her accent.

For Rav, accent bias at work is a manifestation of it in every other aspect of life. He highlighted that Disney used a hierarchy of accents in its films, with heroes speaking with an American accent and villains in Received Pronunciation, even in the Lion King which is famously set in Africa.

He expressed his view that we as individuals also create our own hierarchy of accents based upon our own experiences, and Emma highlighted a study which found that regardless of the accent we have, we all tend to place that particular one highly in our own hierarchies.

Rav also discussed the privilege of having English as a first language as it is the lingua franca of finance and banking, news and current affairs, pop music and other facets of global culture. He spoke about research which found that the hardest part of being a call centre worker in the Philippines was understanding different English accents – an issue unlikely to be considered by a native English speaker.

Tim asked what can be done to challenge accent bias, suggesting that interview guides should include mention of how accents can cloud perceptions of candidates’ abilities.

Sue spoke about social mobility being an important part of the efforts of Real Estate Balance, and how accent can be an indicator of class, and expressed her support for any interventions to mitigate accent bias.

In 2020, Access Bias Britain tested five such interventions and found that the simplest one – raising awareness of accent bias and the hierarchies of accents with interviewers – to be the most effective.

Most of us would agree that you cannot be what you cannot see, but I also wonder whether you can’t be what you can’t hear. The research suggests that you can train yourself out of being biased based on accent and think less about what that accent is implying to you, and the more time you spend in diverse environments, the more the stereotypes associated with what you hear are worn away.

Emma Guthrie

Paula raised the point that accent also intersects with other characteristics including gender, ethnicity and more, and that accent bias could be exacerbated by them when they are underrepresented in a particular environment. She also discussed the language around accent, suggesting that words like “standard” and “normal” were really just codewords for “dominant”, and that the best way to challenge dominance is by being inclusive.

Sue and Rav also pointed out that as the built environment is for everyone and is everywhere, our industry has a strong incentive to not exclude people based on how they speak. Ours is also an industry with participants who can levitate towards London, and Rav said that people changing how they speak to replicate the sound of success is both limiting their own identity and also just tiring. Instead, he suggested being true to oneself and one’s accent will bring a sense of confidence and lead to success in the long term.

Thank you to Tim, Emma, Paula, Rav and Sue for taking part in such an interesting conversation. If you would like to take an important first step in reducing accent bias in your organisation, please consider providing the below wording from Accent Bias Britain to everybody involved in interview and promotion processes.

Recent research has shown that, when evaluating job candidates, interviewers in the UK may be influenced by the candidates’ accent. In particular, they tend to rate candidates who speak with a “standard” accent more favourably than candidates who speak with “non-standard” accents. This is an example of “accent bias”. The focus should be on the knowledge and skills of the candidate, not their accent. Please keep this in mind when assessing the suitability of candidates.