British business leaders have clashed with Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, after he rejected demands that the government stop using the “archaic” word “chairman”.
Corporate leaders are calling for the “outdated” gender-specific title to be consigned to history, but have been frustrated over the government’s refusal to alter legislation to reflect a change to the neutral term “chair”.
More than 50 business organisations have this week signed a letter seen by the FT to the government calling for new rules to swap “chairman” for ‘chair’ as the default term used by Companies House, the UK’s official corporate register.
The term is used throughout the model articles of association that are used as the basis for companies across the country.
The British Chambers of Commerce has written to the government with the CBI, the Institute of Directors and Make UK, alongside all 53 of the UK’s Chambers of Commerce.
Business leaders say that business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has dismissed the move in private meetings, sparking anger among groups that believe the language around the boardroom should be changed to foster gender equality.
Officials said the move would entail new legislation, which would be too time consuming, especially now that the government has more important priorities such as the war in Ukraine.
One ally of Kwarteng said: “There is a war on European soil and we intend to focus on that rather than on changing chairmen to chairs in legislation. This has been a long-running request from one business group. This is about prioritisation rather than some woke thing.”
But the business groups argue that the shift could easily be incorporated into proposals to change corporate governance rules in the UK expected in the next few weeks.
“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,” said Sarah Howard, chair of the British Chambers of Commerce.
“While businesses can change it themselves, many are under the impression that it is a requirement of Companies House. Language matters,” she added.
One executive added that the letter — which is being sent ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8 — showed the depth of frustration with the government over what business leaders see as a minor tweak that could yield significant positive results.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 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.”
All of the signatories to the letter are taking steps to amend their own articles to use the word ‘chair’ and are encouraging other businesses to follow suit.
Howard said the term “chairman” should be consigned to the history books.
“Companies House still uses the word “chairman” in its model articles of association and has done for many years, meaning it has been used by thousands of businesses across the country when they are set up.”
Judith Hackitt, chair of manufacturing body Make UK, also called on the government to back the “highly symbolic change”.
The government has supported gender diversity in the boardroom through the Hampton Alexander review, which used targets to help boost the numbers of women in the boardrooms of FTSE companies.
Letter in response to this article:
Chair and chairman, chairship and chair-manic / From Duncan Reed, Director, Condign Board Consulting, London SW1, UK