UK businesses call on government to drop gendered term ‘chairman’ from legislation

Kwasi Kwarteng

Britain’s leading business groups are at loggerheads with the government over their call to drop the use of the word “chairman”, arguing the term is archaic and needs updating.

In a battle over the use of gendered language, bosses representing thousands of firms across the country said ministers should bring forward legislation to use the neutral term “chair” in the UK’s official corporate register – the home of company documents.

In an open letter to the government asking for the change, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), Make UK, the Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry said “chairman” was still used by Companies House as its default term for the model articles of association for new firms, meaning it was then repeated in the documents for thousands of businesses.

The letter said enforcing a gender-neutral term could be easily incorporated into upcoming corporate governance legislation.

Sarah Howard, the chair of the BCC, said: “It’s a small but very significant alteration that will help break down subconscious bias and send a clear message to future generations that they have an equal role to play in running businesses, whatever their gender identity.

“There is much more that all of us need to do to help address inequality in the business world and this change would send a clear message on government intent.”

Despite the push, it is thought that the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has so far dismissed the request in private meetings. Officials said companies currently have the flexibility to craft their own articles of association, while updating the rules would require ministers to bring forward new legislation.

A source close to Kwarteng said the decision was not linked to culture wars and instead was about prioritising parliamentary time. “There is the coronavirus pandemic and the worst war on European soil for 70 years, so understandably there are pressures on parliamentary time,” they said.

All the signatories of the letter said they would take steps to amend their own articles to use the word “chair” and would encourage other businesses to follow suit.

Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of Make UK, said she hoped the government would support the “small, but positive and highly symbolic” move.

“This is a welcome and long overdue change, which is easy to make and which I hope all businesses across the UK will support. Despite progress in recent years, it remains the case that women are underrepresented in the most senior roles across companies.”

According to the FTSE Women Leaders Review for 2022, as few as 8% of chief executives in the FTSE 100 are women and they represent as few as 13.7% of executive directorships. Research from the World Bank has also suggested a direct link between the use of gendered language and differing employment rates between men and women.

A government spokesperson said: “We wholeheartedly support increasing the diversity of business leaders and championing women in business.

“Companies already have the flexibility to craft their own articles and to amend their articles as they see fit.”