Is your accent holding you back?

As pathetic as it sounds, when I hear people in public roles - particularly union officials - talking on TV, and if they have an American or a British accent, I think, "What are you doing here? Go cause trouble at home."

This is undoubtedly a stupid reaction, firstly because I believe in trade unions, and secondly because I don't have the same reaction when a person in the same public role speaks with an Asian, Arab or European accent.

Part of me rationalises it thus: of course they wanted to get out of Iraq or Pakistan or China or Russia - who wouldn't? - so they should be able to do whatever job they want once they arrive here.

However, Poms, Yanks? Sheesh, there's nothing wrong with those places - what do they want? Two prosperous First World homes for the price of one?

Anyhow, I know this is ignorant and possibly racist, and I happily override my initial reaction, but it speaks volumes for the effect a person's accent can have on other people, particularly in the workplace.

The New York Times reported this week that, up until recently, the state of Arizona had spent almost a decade sending "monitors" into school classrooms to check on teachers' articulation (aka their accents).

"A federal investigation of possible civil rights violations prompted the state to call off its accent police," the paper said.

"Silverio Garcia jnr, who runs a barebones organisation called the Civil Rights Centre out of his Phoenix-area home to challenge discrimination, was the one who pressed the accent issue.

"In May 2010, he filed a class-action complaint with the federal Department of Education alleging that teachers had been unfairly transferred and students denied educations with those teachers," the paper said.

Reading this made me wonder how many immigrants to Australia had faced similar discrimination?

The Australian Human Rights Commission reports in 2008-09 it had a complaint from a Swiss woman who speaks with a French accent.

"The complainant applied for a position as a conference producer through a recruitment agency. She said a staff member from the agency left a message for her, but when she called back and spoke to this staff member, she was told the position was no longer available.

"The complainant claimed that, when her partner and friend, who do not have French accents, subsequently called to inquire about the position, they were told the position was still open. The complainant claimed the respondent agency discriminated against her because of her origin and her accent."

A similar complaint was made to the commission by a Dutch man who applied to work as a volunteer tourist guide and alleged "his application was delayed and then ultimately rejected because of his race and accent".

A study by the Centre for Social and Community Research at Murdoch University called Refugees and Employment: The effect of visible difference on discrimination found accent and language ability were one of the five most cited reasons by refugees to our country for being discriminated against. Others were their names, religious beliefs and appearance.

Interestingly, language ability and accent were cited more by ex-Yugoslav refugees (42 and 40 per cent) than by refugees from Africa (32 and 28 per cent) and the Middle East (16 and 28 per cent).

A Bosnian woman, a former accountant, described her experience in the workplace:

"During my work experience in real-estate industry I was verbally abused by my colleagues in front of the other staff. Even my juniors took liberty to make remarks about my accent ... It took me a long time to prove myself as a capable worker and earn their respect," she said.

One person you could argue who wasn't disadvantaged by her foreign accent was former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, who hails from Ohio in the US.

She told me this week that "electorally, my accent hasn't been an issue. Voters are far more interested in what a person stands for than what they sound like."

But then, she did get voted out of office. Let's hope we see her in federal politics so we can test her theory out.

What about you? Has your accent helped or hindered you?


If you live in Sydney and would like to help out the incredible Wairoa School in Bondi, read on. Wairoa School provides educational programs for students with moderate to high support needs. Its programs help students with a moderate to severe intellectual disability, who may also have additional support needs related to autism, physical disabilities and/or sensory disabilities.

This Friday, September 30, at noon, there will be a fund-raiser and lunch at the Beach Road Hotel in Bondi. Tickets are $75.

To book, email or phone Sarah on 9365 45 69. I'll buy you a beer as well.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here.