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Time to take charge on your own terms
Here’s a quiz for you: what is the first image that comes to mind for the following: (1) Plunging neckline (2) Tattooed hands (3) Pinstriped suit?
Did you come up with any of the following? (1) Sexy woman (2) Male, possibly an ex-prisoner (3) City gent.
Actually, they were (1) Peter Andre (2) Helen Mirren (3) Judi Dench. I’ll come clean: my purpose was to demonstrate how we make assumptions about people based on limited information, and the trouble with assumptions is they can be wrong and impose limits on what is expected of us. On Saturday evening Marin Alsop conducted the Last Night of the Proms – the first woman to do so in the Proms’ 150-year history. It had been believed that women lack the authority to lead an orchestra, until she put us right. Another job traditionally undertaken by men only was chairing meetings – hence the word “chairman”. As in the TV series Mad Men, until the 1970s roles were far more rigid. Very few women made it to a position of authority or power. Women were in the typing pool and not chairing meetings. Typing was regarded as a woman’s job. It cut both ways: my husband was a student and applied for a summer job. He passed the 40 words per minute typing test but at that time the employment agency couldn’t find him a job because no organisation was ready for a male typist.
“Madam Chairman” was commonly used for those rare occasions when women chaired meetings. As women began undertaking the role they pointed out the anomaly and suggested gender-neutral terms such as “chairperson” or simply “chair”.
Barbara Castle, MP for Blackburn, who spearheaded the Equal Pay Act through Parliament in 1975, said at the time: “I don’t mind what they call me, as long as I’m in the chair.” But then, not many people stood a chance against “firebrand” Barbara, so-called for her tenacity, formidable debating skills and her red hair.
We have come a long way since then. We all tap away at computers now. Most of us sit in open plan offices and women run meetings, departments, organisations – and countries, which has brought changes in office practice and behaviour. Change is hard and stressful. After more than 20 years as a staff development consultant I can say that most people want to work where they feel respected and are able to have a laugh and a joke without offending colleagues. They need those in authority to explain things, take a lead and set an example.
Language is a powerful medium through which the world is reflected and constructed. In America, Washington is the fourth state (after Florida, North Carolina and Illinois) to eradicate all gender-biased language for state materials. Nine other states are in the process. So, for example, “freshman” becomes “fresher”, ”fireman” is “firefighter” and so on. Which leads me to Oxfordshire County Council. On Tuesday Councillor John Christie moved a motion suggesting the use of gender-neutral terms (to you and me that means addressing the chairman or chairwoman according to gender). The motion fell and I can’t help but wonder how and why? This is not Madison Avenue circa 1960. Oxford is a major international city and centre of educational excellence. We should be at the forefront of progress – not lagging behind.
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