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chair vs. chairman

patricia bowne pbowne at execpc.com
Tue Oct 16 04:08:39 EST 2001

Anita Vasavada wrote:
> Women-in-bio newsgroup:
> I would like to get your opinions on the general acceptance of the words
> “chair” vs. “chairman” (for the head of a department or program).  I
> personally find the word “chairman” irritating—why the need to point out
> that the chairman is a man?—and feel “chair” is much more appropriate.
> My institution always uses the gender-neutral term chair.  But
> occasionally I get mail from one of my previous institutions, or a
> national professional organization, that has a “message from the
> chairman”, or a list of chairmen of a specific type of academic program
> (some of whom happen to be women).
> I am often tempted to write in to these organizations and point this
> out.  However I wonder:  Am I over-reacting?  Is the word “chairman”
> generally accepted to mean both men and women?  Should I avoid making a
> fuss over a minor issue and pick different battles to fight (especially
> if it means irritating a “big shot” in the field)?

My institution uses the term 'chair' even though a majority of our
'chairs' are women. (It would be sort of cool if we started using
'chairwoman,' wouldn't it?)

I personally would not make a deal about the term used in bulk mail
unless I were enough of a member in the group to care about their
success, in which case I might point out (most likely in person at a
conference) that the use of the term 'chairman' was disturbing to
younger scientists considering joining the organization. Certainly if I
were answering any such mail I would sign myself as 'chair' and let them
deal with it. 

In my time as chair I have received mail addressed to 'chair,'
chairperson,' chairman,' 'occupant,' and 'his excellency.' I've also
been assigned to eight or more different departments, including
'miscellaneous.' I wish I had kept a better record of it or better yet,
kept the address labels to make a collage out of.

Pat Bowne

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