Monday, 20 January 2020

Accent Bias: Voices at Work

Continuing our series of posts related to the 'Accent Bias in Britain' project, in this blog post we discuss some findings from our research which investigated current attitudes to accents in Britain.


In our last blog post, we explored some of the findings of the second part of our study which investigated how the UK public evaluated 5 different accents in mock interviews. The third part of our study, detailed here, investigated whether people in positions of power such as recruiters would exhibit the same type of accent biases. 

Our study focuses on a profession that has been previously described as lacking diversity, Law. We were interested in examining whether accent bias interferes with judgements of professional skill. In other words, would a candidate with, say a Multicultural London English accent, be perceived as less professional or competent as their Received Pronunciation speaking peers? 

To investigate this question, we played the same mock interviews as described in our last blog post to 61 legal professionals.We prepared 10 short mock interview answers, varying between ‘good’ and ‘poor’ quality. Before we conducted the experiment, these answers were independently judged as 'good' or 'poor' by a group of 25 legal professionals otherwise unrelated to the project.

To create the mock interviews, we had 10 speakers (2 of each accent) record 10 good and 10 poor interview responses. This resulted in 100 recordings. The accents we tested were: Multicultural London English (MLE), Estuary English (EE), Received Pronunciation (RP), General Northern English (GNE), and Urban West Yorkshire English (UWYE). 

From the 100 recordings, our 61 legal professionals heard a random selection of 10 interview answers. They were then asked to evaluate whether they thought the answer was a 'good' answer or a 'poor' answer. They were asked to indicate this on a 10-point scale, responding to the following questions:

  1. “How would you rate the overall quality of the candidate’s answer?”
  2. “Does the candidate’s answer show relevant expertise and knowledge?”
  3. “In your opinion, how likely is it that the candidate will succeed as a lawyer?”
  4. “Is the candidate somebody that you personally would like to work with?”
  5. “How likely would you be to recommend hiring this candidate?”
When we analysed our data, we identified a surprising effect. Whilst the general public displayed a great deal of accent bias in judging the competency of a job candidate, the lawyers did not follow this pattern. In fact, the professions did not show significant preferences for Received Pronunciation (RP) or General Northern English (GNE), nor did they show a consistent dispreference for working class or non-white accents. Instead, they showed a consistent ability to judge the quality of an answer as 'good' or 'poor' regardless of the accent the answer was presented to them in. Their answers very closely matched the answers given by the group of professionals who rated the quality of the written answers. 


The graph above shows this effect. The high quality answers are in yellow and the lower quality answers are in green. As you should be able to see, across the five different accents (see the x-axis on the bottom), the ratings remain relatively the same. At the same time, however, it is worth noting that EE & MLE receive the lowest ratings of all the accents. 

Note, however, that RP is also lower rated than some of the other accents. This is surprising given that RP was evaluated as the most prestigious accent in the label study. It's possible that this ranking might be related to the association of RP with a higher level of education, so there is a greater expectation of these individuals. 

It is also interesting to note that some of the social factors seen to effect the general public's responses do not seem to influence the professional's judgements. The age and regional origin of  legal professionals did not affect how they responded to job candidates, unlike what we found among the general public. Their Motivation to Control a Prejudiced Response (MCPR) - a psychological factor that had a strong effect on how listeners behaved in our public survey - also did not effect their ratings. 

Our findings therefore suggest that when legal professionals are asked to judge the suitability of a candidate, they are able to switch off biases and attend very well to the quality of an answer, judging the competency of the individual independently of their accent. 

Of course, however, the current study simulates just one small part of hiring candidates. It doesn't look at accent bias in other aspects of professional life, like informal interaction during the interview or everyday experiences on the job. So, it's possible that accent bias might influence the candidate's progression later on down the line. 

At least in terms of hiring though, it looks like it's relatively good news for speakers of regional and 'non-standard' accents! 

This summary was written by Christian Ilbury


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