Inclusive Growth Show

Two Billion Voices: Check Your Accent Bias

February 16, 2023 Toby Mildon Episode 92
Inclusive Growth Show
Two Billion Voices: Check Your Accent Bias
Show Notes Transcript

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. 

You can boost company productivity, avoid PR disasters, and build a thriving workplace that attracts the best talent by watching our webinar!

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hey there, thank you ever so much for tuning in this episode of The Inclusive Growth podcast. I'm Toby Mildon, and today, I'm really excited to be joined by today's guest, Heather, because she talks about a topic that I don't think we often talk about a lot within the field of diversity and inclusion, and that's around the bias of accents and the way that we speak and the language that we use. So today's guest, Heather Hansen, is a TEDx speaker. Her TEDx talk is called, "Two Billion Voices: How to Speak Bad English Perfectly." And she's also the author of a really great book, "Unmuted: How to Show Up, Speak Up and Inspire Action." So Heather, it's really great to have you on the show today. Thank you for joining me.

Heather Hansen: Thanks so much for having me, Toby, I'm excited about our conversation.

Toby Mildon: Heather, before we get into the meat of the conversation, 'cause we got three topics to talk about today, so we're gonna talk about inclusive leadership skills, inclusive cultures and diversity and representation. Could you just let us know a bit more about who you are, your background, and what you do? 

Heather Hansen: Sure. Well, I was born and raised in California, but I've lived outside of America for the past 21 years almost, and I lived a number of years in Denmark with my Danish husband, and then I've lived almost 13 years here in Singapore, where I'm currently based and where I run a speech and communication training firm called Global Speech Academy. So I grew up tying this to accents and how we speak with a very privileged, globally recognized, what's seen as quite general American accent, but then I studied German at university, I have a Bachelor's degree in the German language, and studied and worked abroad in the German language, and then also now speak Danish fluently. And I've struggled with the bias that I've experienced in those other languages. And it was only then that I realized how lucky I really was in the world to speak English first of all, and with a easily recognizable accent. And that is when I decided I really wanted to focus on this subject, because I don't think people realize what immense privilege we have by being born into this language. So all of that has sort of come together over the past 15 years in my training firm where I coach and train individuals primarily in multi-national organizations based here, headquartered in Singapore and throughout the region, and helping them to communicate, and speak up and show up in the workplace, and really own their voices.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. That is really cool, and I like how you've touched on privilege, actually. We had a podcast guest who wrote a really good book where she talks about privileges, and she lists in her book, 50 different types of privileges, and one of those was speaking English.

Heather Hansen: Yay! I'm glad she included that. I feel like it's always left off the list, and it's so important that we recognize it.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. One of the things that I know you talk about, is encouraging coaches of open listening, which I think is an important part of creating an inclusive culture, and being an inclusive leader, and one of those skills that leaders should be developing to be an inclusive leaders. Can you just expand a bit more about why you encourage open listening?

Heather Hansen: This is probably the most important skill that we need to develop as leaders and really at every level of the organization, by really listening to the meaning behind the message, especially when we are in global environments, multilingual, multicultural environments, and really with any type of diversity, we need to be really open to listening to others and inviting others into the conversation. And I think that second part of 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, and that's really what it's about in the organization.

Toby Mildon: And what about cross-cultural communication? 'Cause I know, again, this is another thing that you talk about, but interestingly, cross-cultural communication is one of the six signature traits of Deloitte's inclusive leadership models, so there's that synergy's there. What's your thoughts on that? 

Heather Hansen: Cross-cultural communication has to be remembered across the board, and we need to re-frame it somewhat, because a lot of people look at cross-cultural 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... How old was I, 22, I think, 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, 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, to respond well to, it may backfire, it might not work. And when we work in really global environments, I think we recognize this more and more, because everyone has a story and we come from all different places. And so 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.

Heather Hansen: So being an English speaker, that is a culture. Being a wine lover is a culture, being a sports fan is a culture, and each of them play a part in creating the filter through which I see the world and how I behave and interact with others. So we need to broaden that definition of cross-cultural communication to include how we are interacting with anyone, any individual who is different from us, which is really every single individual we meet all day, every day in our work, and our lives.

Toby Mildon: Definitely. I know when I talk to my clients, I get them to think about cultures within their own organization, because when I worked at the BBC, the culture of working in technology was very different to the culture of people making TV programs, or radio programs. And to be a successful leader within the BBC, which is one organization, you had to be able to transcend different cultures, different ways of working.

Heather Hansen: Absolutely.

Toby Mildon: What about accent bias? I like this topic about... I've seen it. I've heard, I've got lots of sort of stories of clients who talk about accent bias, about the assumptions, or the presumptions, or the stereotypes that people make about them when they start to speak and hear and how people hear them. How does accent bias work? How does it impact hiring decisions, leadership progression within an organization, that kind of thing? 

Heather Hansen: Yeah, that's a really big question, Toby. [laughter] But let's try to simplify it.

Toby Mildon: I know. We don't do easy questions on this podcast.


Heather Hansen: Well, there's a few things we have to understand about accent bias first, and the first one is that you do not have to be a foreign language speaker, so you don't have to be coming into English as a second, third, fourth, fifth language. There's plenty of accent bias just among ourselves, the people who were born into the language, and an enormous amount of research has been done within the UK, and also the United States, but some very recent research from Accent Bias Britain, for any listeners who are interested in that, I would definitely encourage you to look into it. They have looked at, especially in the UK context, among native speakers of English, how accent bias is playing out in the workplace, and 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.

Heather Hansen: When I lived in Denmark, my American accent was actually a really 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 Africa, 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. And 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, 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.

Toby Mildon: What do you feel organizations should be doing to try and mitigate this kind of bias going on? 

Heather Hansen: Well, what's really interesting, and what Accent Bias Britain just discovered through their research, was the one thing that made the biggest difference in hiring decisions, for example, 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 actually making the biggest impact in mitigating the risk of having 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 like and sound like, and you first need to know accent bias exists. So it could just be that this is an early enough stage of this topic in our discussions that that is making the biggest impact at this time.

Toby Mildon: So obviously, the work that you do is a lot around communication, you've written a book, Unmuted, and you're a TEDx speaker as well. So, why do you feel that communication is not a skills problem to be solved by more training, but something that it's at the core of company culture? 

Heather Hansen: Yeah, that was a big reason why I wrote Unmuted, because 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 presentation skills training, and we need you to coach this person on their articulation, and we need some coaching here and there." And 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 very small part of that.

Heather Hansen: 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 skillset. But much deeper than that, is how we are communicating internally and even externally with clients and stakeholders within the company, the culture that we have created, is it a culture 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? And if that culture is being tended to, then people can really be a part of an inclusive organization, but not before. So we really need to go a lot deeper than simple training programs, 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 organization.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. You and I are on the same page on that. I get really frustrated when somebody rings me up and asks me if I can just go along and do like a one-hour lunch, and then they feel like, "Wow, we've ticked the diversity box this year. Let's move on to something else." And I say to them, "Yes, I can come and do a one hour webinar for you, but how is this fitting into your bigger, more holistic diversity and inclusion strategy, and what kind of culture change are you expecting to see in the business? Because if it does fit into that bigger piece of the puzzle, then great, I'll come along and do a session for you. But if it's not about shifting the culture, creating a more inclusive work environment for your people, I'm probably not the best person to invite along."

Speaker 4: If your company has a great diversity and inclusion strategy, if your organization has an amazing work culture where productivity is peaking, if the best talents in your industry are working for you, if all your employees are happy and feel included, then feel free to skip this message for about 30 seconds and continue listening to the podcast interview with Toby. But if you feel that your company is lacking in any one of these areas, your employer reputation is taking a hit, Toby Mildon is one of the UK's leading diversity and inclusion experts, who has helped top companies like Deloitte, the BBC, Sony Pictures, in Centrica, as well as numerous scale of businesses who want an outstanding inclusive culture. To go further in your diversity and inclusion journey, log on to Toby's webinar at to accelerate your company's diversity and inclusion strategy in 40 minutes. Thanks for listening. And now back to the podcast interview with Toby.

Toby Mildon: I know the other area that you get involved in, and I think we could probably both be cow about this a little bit, 'cause with my background in technology is around AI, and speech data within AI, and it's something I personally can relate to, because I've got a disability. I rely on speech-to text software to use my computer. I do know friends who English is not that first language, or they've got an accent, and this technology doesn't work as well for them as it does for me, 'cause I've got a fairly neutral British accent, I would say. I grew up in the West country, so if you get me on the sly there, occasionally my west country accent comes out and I start sounding like a pirate. But your experience in AI, why do we need to explore diversity of voices and speech within the AI world? 

Heather Hansen: Yeah. Well, you mentioned one of the reasons, which is to make it more accessible. So you're absolutely right, people with foreign accents have a much more difficult time, or even what are considered more out of the norm, native accents. Even someone from Ireland can have difficulty with speech recognition. So native speakers are also hit by this if you aren't the typical general American, or RP speaker, or something very neutral from the UK. So that is the first one, accessibility. And we see this not only with accent specifically, but also 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. And the auto-subtitling, women will always have less accurate subtitles than men, and our ethnic minority women will be even worse.

Heather Hansen: So we see it coming out in interesting places like that, where different voices, different genders, different types of people are not being recognized 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. So 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 accent. 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 92% native, 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. And so we have to be very, very careful that we're being incredibly inclusive in the types of language that we feed AI with.

Heather Hansen: 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 centers in India. And the founders had all been working in call centers before, so they've experienced accent bias at its worst, where they have someone call from the US, they need 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 center can call John in Minnesota, and press a button so that he can sound like someone from the Midwest of America and near the accent of the person he's calling, so that he doesn't face the bias. And 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 really is.

Toby Mildon: It is. I feel really sad by that, because it's almost like people are having to mask who they really are in order to fit into another culture. And it goes back to your point earlier about being able to work cross-culturally and have cross-cultural communications, and be aware of our bias so that it doesn't get the better of us.

Heather Hansen: And I know a lot of your listeners right now will be saying, "Yeah, but some people are just really hard to understand, you just can't understand them. That's not my fault, right?" [chuckle] That's the kind of reactions that we have. But we've also seen in a number of 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 center, or some frustrating experience, and 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.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. And I think it goes back for listening, and also... I don't know if this is a very cliche, but I've seen some numbers floating around somewhere, but actually communication, 90% of our communication is down to body language and tonality, and not so much the actual words that are said.

Heather Hansen: Yeah, the visual, and the vocal. Right, right. Well, we can do so much more outside of language. We put so much focus on the grammar being perfect, the language being... The right word, 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 traveled 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 really need to and if you're really making the effort.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. What I find particularly interesting, is the bias and the stereotypes, or as Verna Myers, he'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," and particularly around accents. So if you hear somebody with a really thick brummie accent, or accent, or Scottish accent, it's like, what assumptions are you making about that person? And how is that affecting your decision-making if you're in a position of power and privilege? 

Heather Hansen: Exactly.

Toby Mildon: Like you're doing a job interview, for example. And I find that really interesting, and I remember when I worked at the BBC, I worked with a very senior manager who... He'd been at the BBC for a very long time before I joined. And he grew up in the North and moved down to London to work for the BBC. And when he first worked for the BBC, he said that he felt like he really stuck out, because he had a Northern accent, and everybody in the BBC had this kind of received pronunciation accent. And I don't know, that story really stuck with me, 'cause he didn't really strike me as having a particularly strong accent. Maybe it changed over over the years, but he was made to feel like he didn't quite fit in because of his accent.

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

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. So the question that I ask everybody when they come on this podcast is, what does inclusive growth mean to you?

Heather Hansen: 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.

Toby Mildon: And if the person listening to us right now wants to get a copy of your book "Unmuted," where should they go? 

Heather Hansen: They can go to

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well, Heather, thank you ever so much for joining me today. I've learned loads from you. I think what I learned, is that it's really important that we consider language as part of the culture of an organization that we're trying to create, that helps us be more inclusive leaders. There's some skills in there that we need to develop, like open listening and really hearing people. But I think being particularly mindful about accent bias, 'cause we talk about lots of different biases, but I don't think accent bias is one of those that we often talk about, and I really liked how you shared like a really practical tip of just putting a note at the top of your hiring managers' toolkit to say, "Please be aware of accent bias in your decision-making." And then also, I found it really interesting around AI and how there's bias that's showing up in the technology that we're developing, and how that is affecting the accessibility and the usability of the software that I can only imagine, we're just gonna be using more of in the future. So yeah, Heather, thank you ever so much for joining me today.

Heather Hansen: Well, thanks for having me, this has been so fun. Thanks so much for all the work you're doing as well.

Toby Mildon: Oh, you're welcome. You're welcome. And thank you for tuning into today's episode of Inclusive Growth Podcast with Heather and myself. Hopefully, you took away some really interesting hints and tips and things that you can take back to your own organization. If Heather can help in any way, please do reach out to her through her website or go and get a copy of her book, "Unmuted," and also check her out on the, on TEDx and watch her talk on TEDx. Until the next time, take good care of yourself, and I'll see you on the next episode of the podcast, which will be coming up very soon. Take care.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at