Friday, 27 February 2009

Language - chairman, chairwoman, chair

For me, this is one of the classic cases that exemplifies patriarchal etymology. Or to put it in less pretentious language, how the words we use subtly reinforce that men are in charge.

As a child, I was brought up with a very 'traditional' use of words. Women were ladies, something to aspire to, implying a rather nice class of woman, respected by men (who held doors open for ladies), and ladies probably only ever slept with one man in their whole life.

They were correctly addressed on envelopes as Mrs Husband's Initials followed by Husband's Surname. Not only did they lose their surname on marriage, they lost their first name too.

On the rare occasion any of these lovely ladies got involved in meetings and - heaven forbid - got to chair them, they were invariably Madam Chairman. A chair was an inanimate object. People who referred to Chairmen who chaired meetings as Chairs were clearly revolutionary dissidents.

I learnt and absorbed all this etiquette and correct use of language rigorously. Aspiring to be (almost) as good as a man and being called Madam Chairman sounded wonderful. How much more could a young girl want than to be considered remotely equal to a man?

Fast forward some years and I'm sitting in a newspaper office with some women, who could broadly be described as feminist. One of the local councils that I regularly covered was chaired by a woman. It suddenly occurred to me that I should not be referring to her as a man. But what to call her? Chairwoman? Chairperson? I didn't want to get it wrong.

I wanted to tread a fine line between pointing out that she was not a man and not sounding like a radical left-winger. I can't even remember what solution I chose. I just remember I stopped calling women chairmen. There were no hate letters or rants from the editor so it was obviously acceptable.

Moving on a few more years, and I'm in charge of the chief executive's office (sadly not as chief executive) and I had responsibility for managing the board. So Question Number One. How to not offend your chair, when she is a blue-rinsed Tory pensioner who adores being called Madam Chairman? I don't know how I managed it, but I seemed to get stuff passed that referred to her as chair. I usually tried to avoid it by saying she chaired the meetings, but sometimes I had to refer to her as Chair. She probably moaned to the Chief Exec and he would have dodged around it and smoothed it over in my favour.

The point about all this is that women can and do chair meetings. In some cases well. They are not there to be regarded as some aspiring man. They are there in their own right. And they deserved to be acknowledged as such and not as a token man.

Here is a definition from my computer dictionary:
2 the person in charge of a meeting or organization (used as a neutral alternative to chairman or chairwoman) : the deputy chair of the Supreme Soviet. • an official position of authority, for example on a board of directors : the editorial chair.

Language changes and evolves. Chair is a perfectly acceptable term to describe the person in charge of a meeting. It no longer refers solely to an object you sit on. So it really gripes me when recidivist whingey men drone on about how anyone who chairs a meeting is a chairman, that chairs are what you sit on and only what you sit on, and who are all these PC idiots anyway?

Do the same men (and sometimes women too qv my former chair above) call Anita Roddick a successful businessman? If you don't call a businesswoman a businessman, why would you call a chairwoman a chairman?

Chairwoman and chairperson sound clumsy to me and I prefer gender neutral language wherever possible.

But anything is better than calling a woman a chairman. People who call for gender neutral language aren't doing it for the sake of it because it is 'PC'.

We are doing it because
a) the default value that assumes everything is male is offensive, oppressive, and reinforces patriarchal stereotypes
b) changing language and its use is, at least, a start to changing ideas, culture, and society.


A.R.M. Chair said...

I used to take minutes (for five long bloody years!) at a board meeting (should actually type "bored" meeting I guess but too predictable a joke)......

Female in charge - therefore The Chair.....(well tbh she was big enough in size to be the bloody chair).......insisted on being called The Chairperson, which just sounded and looked plain ridiculous in my humble opinion.

No idea how you resolve this conundrum, personally, I hate the expression "Chair" and "Chairperson" however, just lately life is too short it seems to get worked up over it all.

Interesting and thought provoking post and I have eaten too many left over sweeties from Christmas so I will soon be as big as said bloody Chairperson.........

Interested Armchair

Anonymous said...

and no the meetings I minuted did not take "five years", the sense of my comment came out all wrong there.........too much sugar coursing around my veins now.