Non-native accents may have different employment impacts for women and men

April 11, 2023

Samantha Hancock

Professor Samantha Hancock - story by Rob Rombouts/photo submitted

Canada’s workforce is made up of people from around the world, and many workers speak English as a second language. The success of workers is impacted by their accents and perceptions of ability, but the effects may be very different for men and women.

New research from a Western researcher and her colleagues studied how non-native accents may impact women in different ways than men. These effects may initially seem positive, but in actuality could result in longer-term issues for workers and industries, and can undermine gender equity.

Samantha Hancock, professor in the DAN Department of Management & Organizational Studies, co-authored the study with Ivona Hideg and Winny Shen, both from the Schulich School of Business. The journal article was recently published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Previous research has generally found that people with non-native accents are seen as less competent, but this research generally focused on the impact on men, or without specifying the gender of the person. Hancock and her colleagues wanted to examine specifically how women are stereotyped and impacted by non-native accents during the hiring process. “The effects of people who speak with accents are not straightforward. People have multiple identities that impact how people perceive them,” said Hancock.

According to the Stereotype Content Model, all groups are stereotyped along two dimensions: warmth and competence. Groups viewed as cooperative are considered warm, whereas competitive groups are seen as lacking in warmth. Additionally, groups seen as occupying high-status roles are seen as competent, while those in low-status roles are perceived as less competent.

Women are generally stereotyped as being warm, and the researchers found that this effect is amplified for women who spoke with non-native accents. The researchers focused on people with Mandarin accents, as people of Chinese descent are one of the largest immigrant groups in Canada, but this may also apply to accents associated with with other gender-traditional countries – such India and the Philippines – due to beliefs that immigrant women from such countries are particularly likely to abide by traditional gender roles.

“This has important implications, particularly in the Canadian workforce population,” said Hancock.

In three studies, participants were provided information about potential candidates and asked to decide whether they would further consider the person for an open position within their organization. In the first study, for a part-time volunteer position within a business student society, the information consisted only of audio recordings, some of which had accents, others which did not. The second study, for a full-time, paid marketing coordinator position, included a resume, along with the voice recordings. The final study included the marketing coordinator position, but varied the industry in which the position was situated-- one in more feminine industries (i.e., fashion, cosmetics), and the other in more masculine industries (i.e., oil and gas, manufacturing).

The authors found that, although warmth among women with non-native accents led to more favourable hiring recommendations for some roles, it reduced the success rate of these candidates in roles traditionally seen as male-dominated. These findings were consistent no matter the gender or ethnicity of the person making the hiring decision.

“Stereotypes seem to be commonly held across all groups,” said Hancock. “They are pervasive and deep-rooted.”
Although non-native accents may be seen as a positive for initial hiring in some circumstances, stereotypes associated with non-native accents could lead to women facing more challenges in acquiring higher-level jobs and advancing in their careers. Hancock said this could be applied for roles where competence is viewed as an asset, and warmth as a liability, such as higher-level leadership roles.

“What could be seen as positive – isn’t actually that positive,” said Hancock. “These candidates won’t necessarily progress into leadership positions or won’t move into roles seen as prototypically masculine.”

Understanding the role of stereotypes, and how accents can impact our assumptions about people is an important first step, said Hancock. It is also important for people to note that although there may be some positive effects initially – at least in limited circumstances, these may become detriments in long-term career development.

“These higher perceptions of warmth ultimately undermine gender equity, and push women into lower pay or prestige jobs or industries,” she said. “There are downstream implications. If women are pigeon-holed into feminine positions and industries, gender-based occupational segregation occurs. When they do try to branch out, the stereotypes aren’t congruent and people will see women as a poor fit with a wider range of roles.”