Two Billion Voices: Check Your Accent Bias

In this conversation, I spoke to Heather Hansen who is a speaker and author on the topic of accent bias. We spoke about all things accent bias from the use of AI to the importance of considering language bias as part of the culture when building and leading an inclusive organisation.

Today’s guest is Heather Hansen a TEDx speaker and author on the topic of bias around accents when people. Heather’s TEDx talk was called Two Billion Voices: How to Speak Bad English Perfectly” and her book is titled “Unmuted: How to Show Up, Speak Up and Inspire Action.” This is a topic that I don’t think we often talk about a lot within the field of diversity and inclusion, so I was excited to hear more from Heather.

Before we got into the meat of the conversation which was across the topics of inclusive leadership skills, inclusive cultures plus diversity and representation, I asked Heather to tell me a bit more about herself, her background, and her work.

‘Well, I was born and raised in California, but I’ve lived outside of America for the past 21 years almost. For a few years, I lived in Denmark with my Danish husband. I’m currently based in Singapore where I’ve been for 13 years, where I run a speech and communication training firm called Global Speech Academy. I grew up with different accents, but speaking with a privileged, globally recognised, quite general American accent. Then I studied German at university and gained a Bachelor’s degree in the German language and then worked abroad using the German language. Now I speak Danish fluently too.

I’ve struggled with the bias that I’ve experienced in those other languages, yet it was only then that I realised how lucky I was in the world to speak English first of all, with an easily recognisable accent. That’s when I decided I wanted to focus on this subject because I don’t think people realise what immense privilege we have by being born into this language. All of that has come together over the past 15 years in my training firm where I coach and train individuals primarily in multi-national organisations based here, headquartered in Singapore and throughout the region, helping them to communicate, and speak up and show up in the workplace, and own their voices.’

I like how Heather touched on privilege. On a previous podcast, we talked about 50 different types of privileges, and one of those was speaking English. Heather also talks about encouraging open listening, which I think is an important part of creating an inclusive culture, and being an inclusive leader. I asked Heather to expand on why she encourages open listening.

‘This is probably the most important skill that we need to develop as leaders and at every level of the organisation. We need to listen to the meaning behind the message, especially when we are in global environments and multilingual, multicultural environments. As with any type of diversity, we need to be open to listening to others and inviting others into the conversation.

I think that the second part, inviting others in, is equally important. So it’s not just listening to those who are speaking, but also monitoring who has not spoken, inviting them into the conversation making sure that there’s a voice at the table.’

Heather also talks about cross-cultural communication which is one of the six signature traits of Deloitte’s inclusive leadership models. I asked Heather to share her thoughts.

‘Cross-cultural communication has to be remembered across the board. We need to re-frame it somewhat because a lot of people think cross-cultural as meaning big C national culture. And that actually says very little about who we are as individuals. Okay, I hold an American passport, but I haven’t lived in America for over 20 years. I was 22 when I left the country. I’ve never been a grown-up there. I finished University and I left. I never owned a car. I never had an apartment. I never had insurance. It’s a foreign country for me. So yes, it shaped my upbringing, and it shaped a lot of who I am, but if you walk up to me and treat me the way you expect an American in your mind, whatever that means, it may backfire. It might not work. When we work in global environments, I think we recognise this more and more, because everyone has a story and we come from different places. When we talk about cross-cultural communication and cultural intelligence, it’s more than national culture, it’s all the micro-cultures we’re a part of too.

Being an English speaker, that is a culture. Being a wine lover is a culture. Being a sports fan is a culture too. Each of them plays a part in creating the filter through which I see the world and how I behave and interact with others. We need to broaden that definition of cross-cultural communication to include how we are interacting with any individual who is different from us. That’s every single individual we meet all day, every day in our work, and our lives.’

I know when I talk to my clients, I get them to think about cultures within their organisation. When I worked at the BBC, the culture of working in technology was very different to the culture of people making TV or radio programmes. To be a successful leader within the BBC, you had to be able to transcend different cultures and different ways of working.

Thinking about accent bias, I’ve got lots of stories of clients who talk about accent bias and the assumptions, presumptions, or stereotypes that people make about them when they start to speak. I asked Heather, ‘How does accent bias work? How does it impact hiring decisions and leadership progression within an organisation?’

‘That’s a big question, but to try and simplify it there are a few things we have to understand about accent bias. The first one is that you do not have to be a foreign language speaker. You don’t have to be coming into English as a second, third, fourth, or fifth language. There’s plenty of accent bias just among ourselves, the people who were born into the language. An enormous amount of research has been done within the UK and the United States, with some very recent research from Accent Bias Britain which I’d encourage people to read. Accent Bias Britain has looked at how accent bias is playing out in the workplace, particularly in the UK context, amongst native speakers of English. We know that it’s affecting hiring decisions. We know that, especially in the UK, it has a lot to do with economic class and upbringing and education. So you will immediately hear where someone is from, and in the back of your mind, you will immediately attach some subjective meaning to that, based on how you’ve been raised, how you’ve grown up, what your own economic class is, and your educational background. Foreign language speakers and foreign accents are another class in themselves, where there’s also a very specific ranking of the good foreign accents and the bad.

When I lived in Denmark, my American accent was a good one to have. It was considered charming. Now, if you came from anywhere in the Middle East, or were a refugee from Syria, or from an African country, believe me, that accent on your Danish was not seen as charming and there was a very different reaction. So you can also see how accent can be very closely linked to race and ethnic discrimination in the workplace. This does come out in hiring and promotion decisions. We see it even outside of the workplace, in healthcare, in the courtroom, when judges are deciding on parole, or sentencing and when witnesses are being heard by juries. The way we sound impacts so much of how people view us, listen to us, and whether or not they choose to understand us.’

My next question was about what Heather feels organisations should be doing to try and mitigate this kind of bias.

‘What Accent Bias Britain discovered through their research, was that one thing that made the biggest difference in hiring decisions was simply having a statement at the top of the hiring managers’ forms, reminding them that accent bias is a real issue and for them to please be aware and not take that into consideration in their hiring decisions.

So what we’re finding, is the simple act of raising awareness about accent bias, is making the biggest impact in mitigating the risk of discrimination in the workplace because of it. Now, obviously, that’s also the very first step you have to take before you can take any other actions like training, or talking about microaggressions and what they look and sound like. Before that, you need to know accent bias exists.’

A lot of Heather’s work is on communication, not as a skills problem to be solved by more training, but something that it’s at the core of company culture. I asked her to talk a bit more about that.

That was a big reason why I wrote ‘Unmuted’. I was getting so frustrated with getting those calls from HR at the end of the year saying, “Okay, Heather, we’re planning our training calendar for next year, we need you to come in and do two days of presentation skills training, and we need you to coach this person on their articulation, and we need some coaching here and there.”

They were these simple tick-the-box, one-day interventions, and that is not what is going to help us become more inclusive communicators. This is a process. It is a culture. Sure, skills training is a small part of that. If you truly do not have the skills to give a presentation, then of course, we want to train you to be confident in that skill set. But much deeper than that is how we are communicating internally and even externally with clients and stakeholders. Within the company is the culture that we have created one of open listening? Do people feel psychologically safe? Do they feel that they have a voice at the table? Can they speak up without negative repercussions?

If that culture is being tended to, then people can really be a part of an inclusive organisation, but not before. So we need to go a lot deeper than simple training programmes. It’s much more of an intervention or a transformation, which is what I’m now working with my clients on through the unmuted journey, where we look at conscious, confident, and connected communication and creating that as a culture in the organisation.’

Another area that Heather gets involved in is AI. Speech data within AI is something I personally can relate to because I’ve got a disability and I rely on speech-to-text software to use my computer. I do know friends where English is not their first language, or they’ve got an accent, and this technology doesn’t work as well for them as it does for me because I’ve got a fairly neutral British accent. I grew up in the west country and occasionally my west country accent comes out and I start sounding like a pirate. I asked Heather, in her experience of AI, why we need to explore diversity of voices and speech within the AI world.

‘One of the reasons, which you just mentioned Toby, is to make it more accessible. People with foreign accents or regional accents have a much more difficult time. Even someone from Ireland can have difficulty with speech recognition. So that is the first one, accessibility. We see this not only with accents specifically but also in the ways that we speak. There have been some studies showing that women, and even worse, ethnic minority women, if they record a video on YouTube, women will always have less accurate automated subtitles than men, and our ethnic minority women will be even worse.

So it’s where different voices, different genders, and different types of people are not being recognised in the same way. When the iPhone came out in Singapore, Siri couldn’t be used by Singaporeans, because it could not understand Singapore English. This comes up all over the world in different ways. Another huge problem that we’re seeing is our apps, which I don’t personally agree with, which are helping people with their accents. And you’ll speak into the app and it will tell you, “Yay, you are 82% native.” And I have to say on one particular app, I was only a 92% native speaker, so I’m not exactly sure what they’re judging against, but the AI technology, as you know, is only as good as what we feed it with. We have to be very, very careful that we’re being incredibly inclusive in the types of language that we feed AI with.

The last example, which is probably the saddest, another way I’m seeing AI technology being used, is by one company that was targeting primarily call centres in India. The founders had all been working in call centres before, so they’ve experienced accent bias at its worst, where they have someone call from the US who needs IT support, and they can’t be understood, and they end up getting low ratings. They can’t put food on the table if they lose those jobs, so they’ve developed an accent translator, where the person in the call centre can call John in Minnesota, and press a button so that he can sound like someone from the Midwest of America and close to the accent of the person he’s calling so that he doesn’t face the bias. I understand why that could be needed and necessary, but I also think it’s a really sad representation of how big of a problem this is.

‘I know a lot of people might be thinking, “Yeah, but some people are just hard to understand. That’s not my fault, right?”

That’s the kind of reaction we have. But we’ve also seen in several studies that we can be very subjective in what we understand and what we don’t understand. So we can hear an accent that reminds us of some experience from childhood, or that last time you called a call centre, or some frustrating experience, we can actually choose to say, “Oh, this accent’s too heavy, I can’t understand it,” and we turn off and we don’t listen. When actually, if you were asked to dictate, you would be able to do that word for word. So there are some choices we’re making here about how much effort we’re putting into the listening as well.’

I feel saddened by what Heather’s sharing. It’s almost like people are having to mask who they are to fit into another culture. It goes back to Heather’s earlier point about being able to work cross-culturally, have cross-cultural communications and be aware of our bias so that it doesn’t get the better of us.

I think it goes back to listening, and also remembering that up to 90% of our communication is down to body language and tonality, and not so much the actual words that are said.

Heather agreed. ‘Yes, the visual, and the vocal, we can do so much more outside of language itself. We put so much focus on the grammar being perfect. The right word or the right pronunciation, when really you need very little language to communicate. We can do so much with voice and tone and gesture. Anyone who’s travelled anywhere in Europe and been to other countries, and been with people with a language you don’t speak, it’s amazing how much you can figure out if you need to and if you’re making the effort.’

What I find particularly interesting, is the bias and the stereotypes, or as Verna Myers, who’s one of my diversity and inclusion heroes says, “It’s the stories that we make up about people before we get to know them.” That seems particularly true for accents. So, if you hear somebody with a thick Brummie accent or Scottish accent, what assumptions are you making about that person? How is that affecting your decision-making if you’re in a position of power and privilege?

For example, if you are doing a job interview. I once worked with a very senior manager who’d been at the BBC for a very long time before I joined. He grew up in the North and moved down to London to work for the BBC. He felt that when he first worked for the BBC, he stuck out because he had a Northern accent, and everybody in the BBC had this received pronunciation accent. That story stuck with me because he didn’t strike me as having a particularly strong accent. Maybe it changed over the years, but he was made to feel like he didn’t quite fit in because of his accent.

Heather added that it is still a big conversation at the BBC, even very recently. ‘There’s a new documentary out around that, where it’s still a minority of presenters who speak with regional accents. Although the BBC opened up to others than RP Queen’s English speakers many years ago, for the history of the BBC that was the focus and what was acceptable. To the point that around the world, we call it BBC English. They’re trying to change that, but in practice, it still has a long way to go.’

Before we finished our conversation, I asked Heather the question I ask all my podcast guests, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘For me, it’s simple, it’s everyone having a voice at the table. That’s all it is. Making sure that everyone has a voice.’

To get your copy of Heather’s book “Unmuted” visit her website at and do check out her talk “2 Billion Voices: How to speak bad English perfectly” on TEDx.

Two Billion Voices: Check Your Accent Bias - Mildon