Chair or chairman? Sexism, power and words

Last night Barnet Council voted to amend its Constitution. They voted to reduce the time allowed for public participation in meetings and they also voted to change the title of those chairing committees from “Chair” to “Chairman”.

Mr Reasonable was at the meeting and wrote about it here

According to the blog, the amendment was proposed by the committee chair, Councillor Melvin Cohen, and passed because of his casting vote; Conservative councillors voted for the amendment; Labour and Lib Dem councillors voted against it. Councillor Cohen is the Mayor this year but announced at the beginning of his tenure that he would not hold with usual form of Mayor’s being apolitical and intended to vote.

I think this is wrong.

I think using a gendered term for the role, like Chairman, sets up an expectation that the role will be filled by a man. Its the image that you see in your head when you close your eyes and say Chairman of the Board. It is normative – that image of the man in a suit, probably middle-aged and probably white, and almost certainly not disabled, is what comes into your head. Its what is normal, what you expect. Now try picturing a person with the title Chair. Not such a clear image is it? The word doesn’t carry the preconceptions about gender, and when that clear stereotype falls away so do the others. That image of who ought to fit the role affects both the people who are electing a chair and the people who apply for it.

The title of Chairman reinforces the idea that stereotypically masculine attributes and skills are what are needed to fulfil the role well. As chair of a trustee board for six years this is what I think makes a good chair: reading the papers and planning the agenda; keeping to time; listening; facilitating discussion, sometimes by playing Devil’s advocate, sometimes by ensuring everyone has the chance to speak; building consensus; making sure there are accurate minutes; and following up on action points. I don’t think there is anything particularly manly about any of those skills, but maybe, as Mrs Angry points out in her post here, we privilege some of those skills above others when we consider it fundamentally a man’s role.

I do think that a chair derives his or her authority from their skill, not their title. I certainly do not think that the addition of the suffix “man” to the title “chair” adds any power, authority or dignity to the office. I find it offensive that in 21st Century Britain people think power, authority or dignity is bolstered in this way, whether a man or a woman holds the role.

I do not think it is right that a committee chair should be forced, by virtue of the Constitution, to apply a gendered title to their role which they are uncomfortable with. I would not agree with the Constitution being changed so that the title of all committee chairs, regardless of gender, should be Chairwoman either.

I don’t know why Councillor Melvin Cohen felt it was important to propose this (in my view) retrograde amendment. I do know what supporters of the change on Twitter have said:

That it is only the “loony” politically correct or “loony” left who believe that the change of the term Chair to Chairman is wrong and promulgates or supports any gender bias. To which I would say that women have throughout history been told that there thoughts and feelings do not matter, that they are “hysterical”, the very origin of the word coming from the Greek word for womb. Disparaging people with insults really does not engage with the argument. The argument is clear – that words have power and that titles are political symbols. If that is untrue, why is it necessary to make the change FROM Chair TO Chairman?

The second argument that has been made is that Chair is an offensive term because it refers only to a piece of furniture. This is obviously nonsense. There is apparently no difficulty in using the word chair as a verb in this context – it is not a problem to say you are chairing a meeting. The use of the word Chair as an alternative to Chairman dates back, according to Wikipedia, to the mid 17th Century, so it has a long established history and is widely accepted. A much longer history than the word “selfie” and even more widely accepted than “bedroom tax” to name two new additions to the dictionary. We are completely comfortable with words having alternate meanings in our language – a bat can be a furry flying mammal or a piece of sporting equipment, without causing any confusion or outrage.

I wonder whether, in fact, this change is lawful. Councillor Alison Moore stated in the meeting that she personally found the title “Chairman” offensive. Given that there is a positive public sector equality duty not just to protect from discrimination but also to encourage people to participate in public life or other activities where their engagement is disproportionately low, it is difficult to imagine that this change does not breach the Public Sector Equality Duty. Surely a woman in her position should have the right to determine how she is addressed?

There are perhaps bigger issues and bigger battles in Barnet today. But if it is important enough to change from Chair to Chairman, then it is important enough to consider the wider implications of that change.


One comment on “Chair or chairman? Sexism, power and words

  1. Well accept your wrong on every account. “man” is not gendered it is non-gendered. Wereman is the gendered term for males, and it’s been forgotten since old english. The solution to the perception that Chairman is a gendered term is not to neuter males for a second, third? time. the solution is to start using the actual gendered term for males wereman. Then we will restore the original meanings to many words from Chairman (person with the biggest chair) fireman (person that fights fires) wereman (person that is male)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s