In our culturally diverse society, accents form an integral part of our identity, reflecting our regional, social, and cultural backgrounds. However, these unique vocal inflections can, unfortunately, become a basis for bias and prejudice in the workplace.
We spoke to Toby Mildon, Diversity and Inclusion Architect at consultancy and advisory firm, Mildon, to find out more.
Q: What is accent bias and how does it manifest in the workplace?
A: Accent bias manifests when individuals make assumptions or form perceptions about a person's capabilities, intelligence, or professionalism based solely on their accent or the way they speak. As discussed with Heather Hansen, a renowned speaker and author on accent bias, in a recent episode of The Inclusive Growth Show podcast, this bias is not limited to overseas accents. It exists among native English speakers in the UK, often influenced by factors such as economic class, upbringing, and education.
Q: In what ways does accent bias impact an individual's psychological wellbeing and emotional state?
A: The ramifications of accent bias extend beyond career progression, significantly impacting an individual's mental wellbeing and emotional state. It can lead to feelings of exclusion, self-doubt, and anxiety, negatively affecting overall job satisfaction, productivity, and performance.
A particularly poignant manifestation of accent bias is the concept of 'covering'. This is when individuals feel compelled to change their accents to fit into the normalised culture of the workplace. Covering can lead to a severe emotional toll as they suppress a fundamental part of their identity, often resulting in feelings of isolation, stress, and reduced job satisfaction. Covering is not only for accents, there are many other reasons why people may hide their true selves, for example, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community changing their behaviour to fit into a heteronormative world.
Q: What does the law say about accent discrimination?
A: The Equality Act 2010 in the UK protects individuals from discrimination based on nine protected characteristics. However, accents do not have explicit legal protection, making it challenging for those experiencing accent bias to seek legal recourse.
Q: How can co-workers help each other understand and appreciate different accents?
A: Addressing accent bias in the workplace requires collective effort. Co-workers can help mitigate this by cultivating a culture of open listening, appreciating the diversity of accents, and challenging their own preconceived notions.
Verna Myers, Vice President of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, beautifully explains that “biases are the stories we make up about people before we know them," and understanding that can be a powerful tool in breaking down these barriers. When we hear somebody with a Liverpudlian accent for example, what kind of assumptions, presumptions or stereotypes might we be making about them? Are these helpful or a hindrance to our decision-making and whether we are inclusive or not?
Q: Are there any industries or places where accent discrimination is a bigger problem?
A: Accent discrimination can be more prevalent in industries that emphasise communication, such as customer service, media, and sales. Geographic regions with strong local accents may also experience higher bias levels.
Q: What strategies would you recommend to employers to mitigate accent discrimination and create a more inclusive workplace culture?
A: Employers have a pivotal role to play in fostering inclusivity. Raising awareness of accent bias is the first crucial step towards its mitigation. This can be achieved by highlighting its existence in company policies, training programmes, and even hiring forms, as suggested by Accent Bias Britain's research.
Employers should also apply the SEEDS model, defined by the NeuroLeadership Institute in their diversity and inclusion initiatives. This model outlines five key types of biases that affect decision-making - similarity, expedience, experience, distance, and safety bias. Understanding these biases can provide a framework for addressing accent bias, creating a more inclusive work environment.
As we move towards an increasingly digital future, the diversity of voices and speech in artificial intelligence (AI) becomes vital. Biases in AI speech recognition systems can further marginalise individuals with different accents, underscoring the need for diverse language inputs in these technologies.
Although subtle, accent bias is a sinister form of prejudice that needs to be addressed head-on. Addressing this is part of a larger commitment to diversity and inclusion, ensuring that everyone's voice, in all their unique inflections, are heard and valued. Through awareness, understanding, and action, we can break down the barriers of accent bias and build workplaces where diversity in communication is celebrated rather than suppressed.
Toby Mildon is a Diversity and Inclusion Architect working with senior leaders and company directors to create inclusive cultures. His work focuses on leveraging the wide-ranging diversity of talent in the UK and creating environments where everyone in the business can thrive, regardless of their background. He believes in the power of inclusive growth (the title of his first book), echoing Heather Hansen's sentiment in his podcast interview with her that "inclusive growth is everyone having a voice at the table" – regardless of accent!
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