Once a month, I spend the best part of two days in a series of Board meetings. Occasionally, the topic of conversation drags, particularly if it is a paper that I’m not expecting to be questioned about, and I watch the interactions play out in the meeting.
Our meetings are very formal, with all statements (at least in theory, until the discussion gets heated) addressed through the chair. This month, we had a new chair for about a third of the meetings, and the whole process fell into complete confusion because (shock!) she was a woman. All of us (including me) have got into a reflexive and very formal habit of saying “thank you, Mr Chairman”…”through you, Mr Chairman” at every opportunity. Many people found it quite hard to stop, even when it clearly didn’t make sense. While our new chair said graciously that she didn’t really mind how she was addressed, I suspect that she would have preferred not to have been called Mr Chairman.
I couldn’t work out what to say myself. My preference, in this context, is to find some words that are gender neutral. The fact that our Board meetings are so formal as to include an honorific (“Mr”) Chairman make it very difficult to find some words that fit. “Madam Chairwoman”, or even “Madam Chair” does not, at least to my ears, have the same gravitas that “Mr Chairman” has.
I managed through the meeting by not saying anything (honorific, that is)… which is I suspect what everyone will do, once they’ve got over the shock of the change. Which means that our female chair will, by subtle differences in language, be treated less formally by those she is chairing than her male predecessor was. Our new chair is excellent at her job, so it won’t matter. But subtly, she will still have to work slightly harder to exert her authority over the meeting, because the formality of language won’t do it for her.