Chairman, Chairwoman, Chairperson or Chair – what’s in a name?


“Seeking Chairman with ASX-Listed experience and Telco background. Must have strong track record in ASX environments. Company to IPO this year, requiring experienced Chair for exciting opportunity. Contact me for confidential briefing.”

I recently saw this advertisement for a role on LinkedIn and questioned the author about the use of the term ‘ChairMAN”.  I  suggested that they use the term ChairPERSON, so it the role is not gender specific!  No wonder we don’t have a good mix of women on boards, it is so easy for us to fall into the trap of a stereotype view of a smartly dressed, slightly greying, good-looking older man in a smart suit.

SCRTD - Board Member RTD_1171_06

SCRTD – Board Member RTD_1171_06 (Photo credit: Metro Transportation Library and Archive)

If you don’t think the term Chairman makes a difference to your view of what this person would look like, then close your eyes and repeat the word Chairman a couple of times and see what image comes to you.  Chances are, you will have a similar first image to me, an image of the greying, good looking older man in a smart suit because this is the common image that we see,  and what most of us have been brought up to expect.  Many a young woman still dreams of marrying a man with power, perhaps not a Chairman of the Board, but certainly someone who has that potential, so instead of creating the potential for themselves they subscribe to their fairytale view of the successful man who will sweep them off their feet and look after them.  I think it is largely due to socialization and what men and women expect based on societies norms, rather than their real skills, abilities and what they can achieve.

The importance of using a non gender specific term for a role such as this is very important and will help woman and men accept that a gender diverse mix of board members is not only acceptable, it is the most logical.  A simple act of changing our language could help negate the need for female board quota’s, but women have to take part and force the change, and many actively argue to keep this language without fully thinking through the ramifications.

The interesting thing about this role advertisement is that it was posted by a successful woman, whose first response to my comment was that it was “political correctness gone mad“.  To her, it was almost unimaginable that we needed to change the term so it was more inclusive, so used to that term was she that any suggestion that the role was not gender inclusive was not considered, and was met by annoyance.  I pointed out that as a potential Chair of a Board, I didn’t want to be referred to as a man and that referring to the role as a ChairWOMAN would be equally discriminatory.  How well would a man respond to being referred to as ‘Chairwoman’ I wonder?  In my view too many of our attempts to get women on Boards are trying to make women into men!  That is: make sure that they have the same attributes and skills of a man who is applying for the role, when this approach just dilutes the ability for diverse thought and perpetuates the potential for sameness, like for like and the subjugation of a person’s uniqueness.

Many women actively fight against changing the term and can’t understand why it is an issue at all!  They argue forcefully for the right to be called ‘Chairman’ instead of Chair, so strong is their belief in the term that they argue to be addressed as a male.  I can certainly understand this in older women and have had the same experience myself in the early 80’s when referring to yourself as Chairwoman just seems to dilute the authority of the role because of the entrenched bias and discrimination against women – even by other women!  Thankfully this is changing and there are now many more references to chairwoman, but that wouldn’t make it right to advertise for one in place of advertising for a Chair or Chairperson.

What this does is perpetuate the club.  If you don’t conform, you don’t get in and for many women this means conforming to a view that equals a view of what is expected from a male, not necessarily what it is to be an individual on a board.  The board ‘club’ often goes further to expect that you are from a Legal, Financial or Commercial background and although we are seeing larger numbers of women entering these fields, it is still narrow.  Sure these skills are important to ensuring good corporate governance and the well-being of a company’s future, but life skills are transferable and thankfully we are starting to see the emergence of other criteria for board members that take board recruitment out of the dark ages and into the future with many now calling for experience in Sociology or human sciences to broaden the skills base.

On reflection, the woman who had posted the role, restated her requirement;

“Must have prior Chair experience, must have worked in an ASX-listed environment, must have Telco experience. Couldn’t care less about gender if you have the experience.”

Chairman Allison M. Macfarlane

Chairman Allison M. Macfarlane (Photo credit: NRCgov)

This simple change opens up the field enormously and takes away much of the mystique and club talk and becomes a logical requirement that someone who has this real life experience could apply for.



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