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Department of Linguistics

Australian Style : Volume 6.1, December 1997

A Chair with no leg to stand on

Michèle Asprey, a lawyer and plain language consultant, arguew the case for gender-neutral language as an integral component of good communication. She is the author of Plain Language for Lawyers (2nd ed. 1996, The Federation Press, Sydney).

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has had a couple of setbacks in his efforts to eliminate gender-neutral languagege from the language of government.

Some time ago, Mr Howard's office issued a directive that the terms "chairperson" and "chair" should not be used to refer to the heads of Commonwealth bodies. Mr Howard then began his attempt to enshrine this directive in legislation – beginning with the Productivity Commission Bill 1996.

But on 2 September 1997, the Senate blocked the Prime Minster's attempts to eliminate the gender-neutral term "chairperson". This news item was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald on 3 September 1997, accompanied by a cartoon with showed the Prime Minister asking a woman: "Why can't I call you chairman?" The woman replies: "It's time we had a little talk about the birds and the bees..."

On 25 September 1997, the Senate struck another blow against sexist language. It passed amendments to the Legislative Instruments Bill 1996 which ensures that delegated legislation (such as rules and regulations) cannot be put into effect if it contains sexist, gender-specific language.

On each occasion, the amendments to the legislation were proposed by the Australian Democrats, as part of their policty to oppose what they call "the Government's sexist agenda".

I have strong views about gender-neutral language. I believe, along with George Orwell and many others, that language can influence thought. When I first began to practise law, there were virtually no statutes or documents which on their face acknowledged that women take part in the world of law and business. I really did feel that I had somehow wandered into a boys' club, and I didn't feel it reflected the "real world". I wanted to see formal recognition of the existence of women in the legal an dbusiness landscape.

Now, nearly 20 years later, I like to think that in a small way I helped influence the move to gender-neutral drafting in the law in Australia. It only took a degree of firm, but friendly, persuasion and a little persistence to convince people of the importance of gender in language. In the dynamic 1980s, it was not such a hard argument to make. The Parliamentary Counsel's Office of New South Wales adopted a policy of gender-neutral drafting in 1983. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Counsel did the same in 1988. Law firms began drafting even commercial documents in gender-neutral terms. I thought the battle was won.

But the position in the 1990s, under a conservative government in Australia, is different. The pendulum seems to be swinging back, and I see our government's change in attitude to gender-neutral language as a disturbing symptom of the way the government is thinking about women more generally.

The government has decided to abolish the office of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Commissioner. It proposes to make sex discrimination just one of the reponsibilities of a deputy president of a new Human Rights and Responsibilities Commission (with a much reduced budget). The government has also slashed the budget of the Office of the Status of Women. And it has begun to strip funds from women's groups. Even the United Nations has taken notice. Several of these moves were singled out for strong criticism in the report of the Seventeenth Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 7-25 July 1997.

The Prime Minister is apparently unmoved. He has described himself as "traditionalist", and takes a personal interest in the language issue.

However, his interest in the issue apparently does not lead him to agree with Chapter 8 of the Australian Government Publishing Service's Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers. That chapter is entitled "Non-discriminatory language". In the 5th edition (1994), there are 14 pages of advice there about how to avoid discriminating against women in the language we use. On page 128 (paragraph 8.27) it says: "Occupational nouns and job titles ending in -man obscure the presence of women in such professions and positions."

The Style Manual then goes on to list various strategies for replacing what it calls "-man compounds", including the word "chairman". The gender-neutral alternatives include "the chair", "chairperson", "convenor", "coordinator", and "head (of)". It also lists what it calls the "gender-specific" alternatives of "chairwoman" and "chairman".

It seems the Prime Minister feels free to ignore this advice. He was quick enough to point out when his government was elected that it included quite a few more woment than there were in the previous government. But his feminism apparently stops short of acknowledging the existence of women in the language of government documents.

Earlier this year I found myself arguing about language issues on ABC radio station 2BL. My opponent was the Minister for Defence Industry Science and Personnel, Bronwyn Bishop. She was in favour of the move away from "chair" and "chairperson". She raised the hoary old argument that the "man" in "chairman" does not mean "man" but derives from manus, the Latin for "hand".

What a load of rot! I have heard this argument time and time again. I raised the matter last year at an Australian Institute of Professional Communicators seminar, when our speaker was Macquarie linguist, Associate Professor Pam Peters. She dismissed that argument out of hand. Manus is indeed the root of many words, like "manage", "manacle" and "manicure". But it has nothing to do with the suffix "man" in in words like "chairman". These words derive their suffix from the Old English word man or mann, which was both the word for "male" and for "human being" or "person". And so we are left with the same problem: it is impossible to separate the two meanings.

But the point I made to Bronwyn Bishop was that deriviation was not the point. The Old English meaning of a word is not the important thing in this context. The key issue is the effect of that word on the listener. I repeated my argument that language influences thought, and though dictates behaviour. Today, when someone hears the word "chairman", more often than not the visualise a man in that role. By using gender-neutral language, we avoid that association, and provide a neutral word which allows the listener to visualise whatever they like.

To illustrate the point I told the radio audience a story included in my book (Plain Language for Lawyers) about an incident at a plain language conference held in Vancouver in 1992. A (female) judge told the conference how, for 10 years she had instructed juries that they should appoint a "foreman". Then one day she decided to say instead that they should appoint a "foreperson". For the first time in her 10 years experience of instructing juries, they appointed a woman.

This story deeply impressed the radio interviewer, but did not impress Mrs Bishop. She replied that she'd be surprised if that was all there was to the story, and that it could have been explained by other factors. Unfortunately, I was not given the chance to reply, and the interview moved on to another topic.

But I see gender-neutral language as more than simply a feminist issue. I am both a feminist and a plain language writer. I see gender-neutral language as a fundamental part of plain language writing. If you use language which excludes (and even alienates) some proportion of your audience, then you are not communicating properly. Plain language writing requires that you consider the needs of your audience. And if language influences thought, and thought dictates behaviour, then by using the word "chairman", you mislead people into thinking that only a man can chair a meeting.

Speaking of chairpersons, I'm reminded of what the former Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Australian Parliament, Joan Childs, once said on the subject. When asked in Parliament if she wished to be referred to as "chairman" or "chairperson", she replied: "You can call me 'chairperson'. I have no sex when I'm in this chair."

It brought the House down.


Click here to read the lead article from the previous edition (June 1997), or back to the list of articles.



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