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Pull up a chair, we need to talk about sexist language at work

Language is an important issue for chairwomen and male chairwomen alike. Shutterstock chairs

With the arrival of the first woman to head the BBC Trust, a perennially tricky question is once again causing awkwardness. Rona Fairhead took the helm of the trust on October 9, but is she be a chairwoman, a chair or a chairman? It might seem like a secondary concern – the head of the trust does, after all, have a lot to worry about – but I would argue that it really does matter.

Earlier this summer, when Fairhead was announced as the preferred candidate for the job, I googled “Rona Fairhead BBC chair”, and sure enough, even before I could type the final r, Google helpfully suggested “chairman”. I harrumphed and stuck with “chair”. The results would have been depressingly familiar for many women.

Many broke the news about Fairhead using the male generic term “chairman”. In The Telegraph’s headline, Fairhead was referred to as both a “businesswoman” and a future “chairman”, while the Mail Online proclaimed that she would be the BBC’s first “female chairman”.

The confusion continued elsewhere. Nicky Morgan, the women and equalities minister, tweeted her congratulations to “the new BBC chairman”“ and Fairhead herself was quoted as saying that she was "honoured to have the opportunity to be the chairman of the BBC Trust”.

The Guardian led with a neutral headline but went on to mention Fairhead’s former “chairmanship” of Barclays. And when one reader used the term “chair” in a comment below the article, another retorted: “Chairman, if you please. A chair is something you sit on or dance with if you’re Elvis in prison”.

And despite later criticising The Telegraph for referring to the eminently accomplished Fairhead as a “mother of three” in its headline, as well as for its use of the term “chairman”, The Drum used the term not once but twice in its own coverage of her appointment.

This seems to correspond with research suggesting that although gender neutral terms are gaining popularity, they have not been successful in completely replacing male generics, even when referring to women.

Who’s the boss?

Some argue that the term chairman, the male generic, can be used to denote either a man or a woman. But feminists have argued that male generics are not generic at all. Maleness is presumed and women are rendered invisible when it is used.

Taking this view, the University of Melbourne’s Guidelines for Non-Discriminatory Language warn that to argue the word chairman, spokesman or master of ceremonies “is simply a functional title like that of secretary and treasurer ignores the exclusionary effect the use of the term may have”.

It might indeed be argued that using the -man suffix sends a message, particularly to young girls, that certain occupations, roles or positions are meant for men.

Yes, there are some high-profile women who use a generic male term to refer to their high-flying position and Fairhead is now one of them, but the very fact that she is the first woman to lead the BBC Trust should tell us that there are not enough women in powerful roles yet to make it ok. Feminists argue that the language that we use does play a part in maintaining the glass ceiling.

In a world in which female representation in politics and on corporate boards is still very low, we should use explicitly feminine nouns when referring to women in leadership roles. It is crucial in order to increase female visibility in domains that have been traditionally male, sending the message to young girls and women that they can – and should – aspire to be the boss.

Ripping up the style guide

There is resistance to change though. According to The Telegraph’s style guide, for example: “chairman [should be used] even when she is a woman. Chair, except in direct quotes, means a piece of furniture.”

So when the newspaper ran its article on Fairhead, the word choice was deliberate. Were the editors even making a point against what has been critiqued as “political correctness gone mad”?

Over the past decades, language reform has been undermined by the conflation of anti-sexism with political correctness. Political correctness, as linguist Sara Mills states, has spawned the invention of absurd terms that mock sensitivity to minority groups and which no campaigner ever argued for. The short become “vertically challenged” and the bald “follically challenged”, a manhole cover becomes a “personhole cover”. This ridicule not only devalues women’s experiences, but also calls attention away from the challenges they continue to face in the workplace and the importance of increasing the visibility of women in leadership positions.

In 1984, Barbara Castle dismissed arguments about whether to use chairman or chairwoman as “psychological frills” distracting feminists from serious goals. “For God’s sake, what does it matter whether, when a woman presides over a meeting, she is called a chairman or a chairperson?” she said. “I never want to be described as anything so hideous. When I am called a chairman I feel that I am capturing a citadel, not surrendering one.

I believe such a view still holds true for many but using non-sexist alternatives is not a psychological frill. The fact that male terms are accepted as "generics” while female ones are not should be seen as a clear sign of gender inequality. Why is it ok to refer to Rona Fairhead as a chairman, but not John McFarlane as Aviva’s new “male chairwoman”?

The fact that masculine compounds – such as chairman – signify power whereas proposals to use their feminine counterparts are criticised as PC oversensitivity that lack real substance indicates that we have not achieved gender equality. The citadel should not have be captured by a select few, such as Rona Fairhead – its doors should be open to both sexes and being mindful of our language and labels is part of the key.

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