Swanage council scraps gender neutral title in documents

Councillors have voted to stop using the title ‘chair’ for anyone chairing a Swanage Town Council meeting and have instead reverted back to the mandatory use of ‘chairman’, irrespective of gender, in all written papers including policies, agendas and minutes.

Despite more commonly using the modern expression of ‘chair’ since 2018, a motion passed at the full council meeting on Monday 13th March 2023 means that in future, all papers referring to the person chairing a meeting will now consistently use the term ‘chairman’.

Swanage Town Hall clock

Swanage Town Council preferring not to move with the times

“ Very strong move towards gender neutral terminology”

The change will only apply to the written form and councillors agreed that the use of ‘chair’, ‘chairperson’, ‘chairman’ or even ‘madam chairman’ could be used verbally.

In a briefing document prepared for the councillors by Swanage Town Council officers, it noted:

“There has clearly been a very strong move towards gender neutral terminology across local government and wider society over recent years. For example, there is a current movement in the private sector for a change to the use of the term ‘chairman’ in company law.

“The British Chambers of Commerce, Institute of Directors, and CBI have recently published an open letter calling on the government to ‘stop using the outdated word chairman’.

“Across Dorset’s local government bodies, a search of town council websites suggests that the majority continue to use the traditional term ‘chairman’, both in council minutes and on their websites, in accordance with the Local Government Act, 1972.

“Dorset Council also continues to use ‘chairman’ and ‘vice-chairman’ for full council and its committees. Only Weymouth Town Council, established in 2019, appears to consistently use the term ‘chair’.”

Bill Trite receives honoured citizen award

Councillor Bill Trite (right), who was Swanage Town Mayor from 2010 to 2013, receives a long service award in 2021

“Small but not unimportant”

Speaking in support of the proposal to only use the term ‘chairman’ in formal council documents, councillor Bill Trite said:

“This is a small but not unimportant matter.”

“Direct link between the use of gender terms and different employment rates between men and women”

However councillor Avril Harris was strongly opposed and striding to the front of the assembled councillors said:

“Why on Earth is this even a matter for discussion in 2023? Up to now we’ve been able to choose how we are referred to in all forms. It’s not even a 100 years since women were able to vote, so how old is tradition? Tradition can be changed! Swanage is a modern council… or is it not?

“The British Chamber of Commerce points out a direct link between the use of gender terms and different employment rates between men and women. It should be ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson’.

“‘Chair’ doesn’t mean a piece of furniture – a reference to the bench in a court of law is completely accepted. Can’t we leave it as it is and move towards a more gender neutral position?”

Tina Foster elected as Swanage Mayor and Chris Morton elected as deputy mayor

Swanage Town Council usually meets in the council chamber at the town hall

“The use of ‘Mr Chairman’ and ‘Madam Chairman’ promotes good manners”

Standing his ground, councillor Bill Trite added:

“We need to be consistent in formal papers. As individual councillors we are free to use whatever terminology we wish when addressing each other.

“’Chairman’ is inclusive and derives from the term humankind, humanity and man – the universal term for the species.

“It has become synonymous with one gender but that is not the origin of the word. It is inclusive and even includes anyone who does not have any gender. It is much more polite and respectful than ‘chair’. The use of ‘Mr Chairman’ and ‘Madam Chairman’ promotes good manners.”

Speaking up in agreement with councillor Bill Trite, councillor Mike Whitwam said:

“I am 100 percent, even 101 percent in favour of equality, but this ridiculous political correctness is interfering with our history. On Swanage Railway, we have firemen and signalmen and some of those are ladies!”

Swanage Railway community engagement event
Andrew PM Wright

Working in the community: Swanage Mayor Tina Foster, Deputy Mayor Chris Moreton and councillor Avril Harris talking to members of the Swanage Railway youth group the Sygnets

“We should be looking at a more progressive way of working”

However, councillor Chris Tomes had consulted on the matter and disagreed with the use of ‘chairman’. He said:

“I can’t even believe we are discussing this. I asked the person whose opinion I most respect – my wife – she’s in her 30s and she said she preferred ‘chairperson’. We should be looking at a more progressive way of working.”

Councillor Gary Suttle said he felt that whatever written word was used, it was less important than the verbal use of the term. He said:

“We already made the decision in 2022 that we can call everyone what we want. We are just talking about written words. Right now, let’s move on. ‘Chairman’ in the written form is not going to affect anyone.”

Proposal was passed

The proposal for the consistent use of chairman in all written council documents was passed by a majority.

  • In favour: Councillors Bill Trite, Mike Whitwam, Chris Moreton, John Bishop, Gary Suttle, Mike Bonfield, Nicola Rogers and Tina Foster
  • Against: Councillors Avril Harris and Debby Monkhouse
  • Abstentions: Councillors Chris Tomes and Caroline Finch
Mayoral boards in Council chamber

The mayoral board in the Swanage Town Council chamber

Scrapping ‘Mrs’ from the mayoral board

A second issue of how to record the name of the Swanage Town Mayor on the mayoral board in the council chamber was also addressed.

In the past, the name of female mayors has been prefixed with Mrs, followed by initials and surname, while men, with the exception of one Dr, have no prefix, just initials and surname.

It was proposed that mayors should be able to choose whether to include a prefix or not.

Avril Harris

Councillor Avril Harris was Swanage Town Mayor from 2021 to 2022

“We should start a new tradition”

Councillor Avril Harris, who was mayor from 2021 to 2022 said she wished to go a step further:

“If we go by tradition I should be Mrs Michael Tucker, do we want to go back to that? I don’t.

“We should start a new tradition and record the first name and surname. Harris is a common surname so I would prefer my full name, Avril Harris.”

However this was not universally agreed and the proposal to keep the initials and surname, with the new option of using a prefix or not, was passed.

Mayoral board in Council chamber
Mayoral board in Council chamber

The names of the former mayor Avril Harris and the current mayor Tina Foster, have yet to be added to the mayoral board

22 mayors since 1974

Since the formation of Swanage Town Council in 1974, there have been 22 mayors – six women and 16 men.

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