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To Chairman or not to Chairman, that is the question

By Paul Smith | PaulSmith, CFO, Board, Career Management |

To Chairman or not to Chairman, that is the question...  

Apologies for the cannibalisation of the Hamlet quote but I wish to quickly discuss the past, present and future.

As diversity increases in many boardrooms (still too slowly), we are seeing more female directors take on the role of Chairman. Or, should it be Chairwoman?

Now, the objectors of political correctness gone mad will protest that chairman is not necessarily a masculine term in the same way as we use hu(man), wo(man) or fe(male). Others might like the false idea that the -man comes from the latin manus, meaning Hand. What a crock!

No, in a man’s world, chairman means chairMAN. 

Are they not saying, “I may be a women, but this is a man’s world, and I will fit accordingly”…? 

However, look through the pages of financial reports or LinkedIn profiles and you’ll find plenty of female directors calling themselves Chairman. I read an article the other day in the Financial Review by two female journalists discussing the rise of female Chairmen. 

Why do it? Do women aspire to the masculine title? Are they told it’s the way it has to be? Do they care little for its sexist overtones? Perhaps because many have fought long to get where they are, it’s no time to further rock the boat.

I asked and those were the answers I got.

Look at some of the more distinguished gatekeepers of the director world and you’ll see courses for Chairman of the Board. If they, in all their knowledge and wisdom, think it should be chairman, who am I to argue.

But argue I must and argue I will. I don’t care whether it means anything or not, I care about the message it sends. If men want to call themselves Chairman, fine. It’s accurate. If women want to call themselves Chairwoman, fine too. However, if women use Chairman, are they being inauthentic? Are they not saying, “I may be a women, but this is a man’s world, and I will fit accordingly”…? Why can’t men then call themselves Chairwoman?

Oh, Paul how silly. Yes, but no more silly than the other way. Why should it be just because it’s got history?

I don’t know the answer and I certainly know there are more important things in life but I believe it sends the wrong message. It sends the wrong message to women, it sends the wrong message to men too, especially younger men who shouldn’t be growing up with the potential sense of entitlement that that particular board role is a mans to have.

Why not use the simple, non-gender specific term Chair. It’s short, to the point, offends no one, creates no sense of entitlement or otherwise. It also saves ink.

Forget Chairperson though. It has two needless syllables and anyway, one day we’ll be led by robots!

Paul Smith, co-founder and CEO of Future Directors Institute, helps empower and connect the next generation of board directors. He is Chair of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia and a director of several start-ups. To learn more about the Future Directors Institute and how they are helping hundreds of next generation leaders make an impact in the boardroom, visit www.futuredirectors.com.au







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