More chairs, please

Gloomy news for genchair stackder equality campaigners in last Thursday’s FT. The newspaper reports a slowdown in female appointments to FTSE 100 boards, according to new data from the Professional Boards Forum.

Key findings include:

  • just 12 per cent of directors appointed in the two months to 1 May are women, compared with 50 per cent in 2012
  • the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards hasn’t budged from 17.4% since last August
  • a minute 5.6% of the group’s executive directors are women

It’s worth adding that all (four) women appointed to FTSE 100 boards in the two months to 1 May are white. Not that race, class or disability (and that’s just for starters) seem to enter the ‘diversity’ debate much – at least not when it comes to getting women on FTSE 100 boards.

Sadly, that state of affairs is hardly surprising when you consider the hash the very people pushing for change seem to be making of getting their message across.

Let’s begin with the Professional Boards Forum itself. Besides tracking the number of female board appointments to fill bleak column inches, the forum’s proclaimed mission is to ‘help chairmen find outstanding women non-executive directors’.

That’s right. Their raison d’etre is to help ‘chairMEN’.

Now I used to be one of those ‘chairman/shnairman’ type people, who’d shrug and say ‘it’s just shorthand, everyone knows it doesn’t mean it has to be a man’. But then I realised that, really, using a gender neutral term like ‘chair’ was probably preferable given that it didn’t invisibilise around half the human race.

Perhaps the PBF should have a think about that. What’s not to like about ditching an outmoded and sexist term which undermines their whole argument?

The media might also want to have rethink. The FT’s style is to refer to ‘chairmen’ and ‘chairwomen’, according to the sex of the office holder. A quick search reveals the BBC, The Telegraph, The Economist, The New Statesman, The Independent, The Guardian, The Express and The Mirror do likewise.

Clearly this is better than the forum’s approach, recognising as it does that both men and women can – and do – head boards. Yet it’s still problematic, not least because the rule is applied inconsistently, with women chairs frequently referred to as men. In a recent diary piece I wrote for The Telegraph, for example, Lady Barbara Judge appeared as ‘chairman of the Pensions Protection Fund’, despite being ‘chair’ in my original copy. Does anyone know of a male chair who is routinely referred to as ‘chairwoman’?

And even if the ‘chairman/woman’ rule is always followed, what about the people who identify as neither male, or female? Reinforcing gender binaries is not the way to go for those seeking genuine diversity – however remote that goal may seem at times.

Language matters. The words we choose have the power to include or exclude, to encourage or dissuade, to foster change or to promote more of the same.  By adopting the gender-neutral ‘chair’, groups like the PFB and the media have the opportunity to set a new, inclusive tone which sends the message that seats at the boardroom table are not just reserved for men.