Does language matter?

Do the words we use matter to describe roles when there is so much more happening in the world?

Inclusion, acceptance and equality words made from colorful wooden cubes. Inclusive and tolerance social concept, flat lay.


What’s in a word? In an open letter this week the British Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, the CBI and the manufacturers’ organisation Make UK warned that the word ‘chairman’ may be contributing to gender inequality and should be replaced with the term ‘chair.’ They noted that ‘chairman’ is still used by Companies House as a default term and that a change to make ‘chair’ the default could easily be incorporated in upcoming corporate governance legislation. It might seem an unimportant thing in the face of all that is going on in the world, but language is important and the assumptions that it carries with it have an impact.

The Government is reported to be against the change because it would require primary legislation and there is too much else going on. That could really be said about almost anything these days. Every day brings more awful news than the day before.

I was listening to a Women and Equalities Committee session this week where there was discussion about issues being paused or taking longer than anticipated. While Covid is a factor, the fact that the Minister for Women and Equalities is also the Foreign Secretary is another. How can she possibly have any time at all for her Women and Equalities portfolio at the moment?

It just shows the way equality has been completely sidelined, despite the levelling up agenda. Indeed the session was on levelling up, but it was quite difficult to get a clear picture of what the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities actually does. The chair’s questioning – and she is a Conservative – suggested she very much has her doubts about its practical role as opposed to its political role. At one point she commented that the Department seemed to be doing a lot of ‘looking at’ issues and asked what it was actually doing to address them.

Childcare was mentioned briefly, with concerns expressed that the levelling up agenda doesn’t address it. The response was that x amounts of money had been spent on childcare over the last years and that money was being invested in family hubs which we are told build on the legacy of Sure Start Centres, many of which were closed as a result of austerity cuts.

Government’s role is to prioritise what matters, which can involve difficult choices, but those priorities need to fit inside an overall vision so we have some sense of the direction of travel and don’t feel that decisions are being taken on the most short of short-term political bases.

The equalities agenda has seemed to be very much on the back burner for the Government for a number of years, despite some positive noises during Theresa May’s time in office. There has been no progress on Shared Parental Leave, for instance, and we have moved backwards on tackling the gender pay gap, having been at the forefront. Now other countries are leapfrogging ahead. Any progress that has been made is due to wider social changes, through the availability of better data and through employers responding to these, in part due to labour market shortages.

While language issues such as whether to use the term chair or not may seem fairly trivial next to all that is going on in the world, they are indicative of a direction of travel with regard to equality at all levels of our organisations and indeed inequality in all its many forms lies at the heart of many of the major challenges the world faces today. The desire for greater equality at work is not an optional extra and will not go away, but it is likely to be down to progressive employers and individuals to continue to take the lead, as they have done for the past few years.

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