‘Being from the North still holds me back’
The North-south divide isn’t just in Game Of Thrones. It’s real, says Liverpudlian Jessica Evans
when i arrived in London five years ago, I thought the city would be an open and inclusive place to expand my horizons. But despite many amazing, positive experiences and making wonderful friends, there have been times in my professional career that I’ve realised this city I now call home probably isn’t as diverse as it likes to believe, especially if you’re from the North.
According to a recent survey by ITV/ Comres of more than 6,000 adults from across the UK, 28% of Brits say they have experienced prejudice for having a regional background and accent. That doesn’t surprise me. Like many other Northerners working here, I find myself routinely – intentionally or not – pigeonholed as less educated, less on-trend, and essentially lower class, just because my origins lie a few hundred miles further up the country.
Take my accent. I was working at a news agency when my former editor asked the team if anyone wanted to do the voiceover for our celebrity red-carpet videos. No one volunteered, so I put myself forward. I was immediately made to regret the decision when he told me my enunciation ‘was simply not professional enough to be considered’.
Further into my career, I worked on a culture desk with a manager who often made cutting remarks about how it surprised him that I’d ‘ended up’ on this desk, as a Liverpudlian. ‘ What could you know about culture?’ he laughed in front of the team, as I internally listed our status as European City of Culture, birthplace of the Beatles and the fact we have more galleries and museums than any other British city outside of the capital.
It didn’t stop. My next role was on a newspaper where, in meetings, a senior colleague would mock my accent every single time I spoke up, making crude impressions, largely consisting of sing-song noises like ‘dey do doe, don’t dey doe’. Not being taken seriously in work often felt like I was always on the back foot, fighting twice as hard for my place as my Southern peers.
The ITV study found that this prejudice thrived ‘along the North-south, “us and them” fault-lines of old’ – this lack of recognition of the skills of a perceived ‘outsider’ was purely a bold-faced bid to maintain the status quo, the same as sexism and racism. Another study, by law firm Peninsula, revealed that eight in 10 employers admit to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents. But it wasn’t that I wasn’t getting jobs. One of my first roles was at my favourite high fashion magazine. The editors had seen fit to recruit me, but I was soon made to realise there was an innate divide between the team’s privileged insouciance and my cheerful, working class enthusiasm at being lucky to be there.
One of the girls chuckled about how she’d never crossed paths with a Scouser who worked in fashion before. Another sharply quipped that I was ‘too friendly’ when I’d made small talk with the cleaner in the kitchen. The desk girls would have ‘champagne Fridays’ to which I was never invited and I’d always mysteriously have to ‘man the desk’ as they swanned off to lunchtime gym classes.
I tried my best to win them over, but after three months in the job, my line manager called me in for a review. I was told my standard of work and attitude was great. She said I was offering ‘clever and fresh’ ideas and copy for the magazine. But then she dropped the bombshell: I wasn’t ‘on brand’. My work was faultless, but being me in the team wasn’t working. ‘ You haven’t done anything wrong,’ she told me. ‘It’s just about fitting in. Are you happy here? I think you’d be more comfortable somewhere else.’ She wanted me to hand in my notice.
And so I did – what else could I do? That night I went home and, through frustrated tears and mouthfuls of Domino’s, applied for a new job – for less money. So being Northern led to me earning less, too.
I know I’m not alone in experiencing these things. Beauty buyer Katie Hughes from Manchester found herself adapting her voice to be taken seriously. ‘I used to hate speaking to “posh” clients because I’d see people laughing as I spoke. For the first time ever, I felt ashamed of my Northern background when I moved to London.’
i find myself pigeonholed as less educated, less on-trend and lower class