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Is it time for Accent Discrimination to be made illegal?

by | Apr 15, 2021 | Job interview, Society

Have you ever felt discriminated against because of the way you speak? Have you ever been told you needed to soften, or even lose, your accent, in order to get ahead in the workplace? Is ‘accent discrimination’ an actual thing?

Well, the French government have decided it is, and have legislated accordingly. Should the UK follow suit, and add accent to the existing list of protected characteristics, or would that be a discrimination law too far?

Having moved around the country a good deal in my early years, I came across a wide range of accents and came to appreciate the incredible accent diversity in the UK, where in some places you only need to travel ten miles or so ‘down the road’ to hear a markedly different accent. Yet, while we might rightly see accent diversity as a cause for celebration, there seems to be a good amount of evidence that certain accents can place people at an unfair advantage when it comes to accessing job opportunities and having ability and potential properly recognised.

This article highlights the frequent casting of Northern actors as servants and this one suggests some recruiters rate not speaking at all preferable to the wonderful Brummie accent. Some of this accent discrimination can be linked to other acknowledge forms of discrimination (e.g. racism and discrimination on the grounds of social class) and much of it also to the (ridiculous) idea that some accents denote a less intelligent person than others.

Here, Jasmine Anderson draws a clear link to social class discrimination and makes a passionate argument for the UK to follow France’s legislative example, but if that doesn’t happen what else might be done to combat accent discrimination?

In her article for Forbes magazine, Accent Bias: How Can We Minimize Discrimination In The Workplace? Pragya Agarwal, who references her own Indian accent and the prejudice UK residents from abroad can face, suggests we all can be prone to unconscious accent bias, stops short of arguing for a legislative solution to accent discrimination, but recommends a number of actions that can be taken by employers to minimise the problem, including training to combat unconscious bias, the development of specific toolkits and the conscious and proactive recruitment of more diverse teams, to encourage the idea that we can all ‘make a conscious effort to look beyond prejudices relating to the delivery of a message to the actual content of that message.’

It’s completely understandable that someone might decide to modify or lose an accent to avoid having their talents overlooked or not being properly listened to, and everyone has a responsibility to try to be understood, as well as to try to understand, but wouldn’t it be great if nobody felt the need to alter their natural accent.

Maybe a legal solution is the answer. What do you think?

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