Proper titles are very important, but how are you supposed to know the right time to use variations of them? Chairman, chairwoman, chairperson… when is the appropriate time to use each of these? In this post, we will answer that question in great detail.
Chairman, Chairwoman, or Chairperson?
Chairman is used when referring to a male, but is also considered to be gender-neutral, which is why chairperson is rarely used. Chairwoman is occasionally used, but usually only when referring to the head of an all-female organization. There is no official rule, only what people prefer.
Sometimes, the English language isn’t quite so clear cut. There are times when we don’t have a rule that specifies a particular turn of phrase, and it all depends on individual perception of how things should be. Some people believe that “chairman” is gender-neutral while others believe it shouldn’t be.
However, some people feel that it is unnecessary and pedantic to try and come up with new variants of words when the original does just fine. The fact of the matter is, there is no official consensus on when chairman, chairwoman, or chairperson should be used. It’s a matter of debate, and of personal opinion.
However, at the very least, there are a few general notions of when these words should not be used, so we’ll be talking about that in more detail.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines chairman as “a person in charge of a meeting or organization.” As you can see, this definition does not specify male or female. In the eyes of the Cambridge Dictionary at least, the term is gender-neutral and can apply to men or women.
However, some people feel that a distinction should be made, even if they don’t want to use chairwoman or chairperson. Some people have taken to the term “madam chairman” to refer to a woman in this position. This too is a matter of personal opinion and taste.
Below are some examples of how to use “chairman” in a sentence:
- Our chairman’s name is Lucy Praga.
- The chairman will preside over the meeting.
- The company chairman has something he would like to say to everyone.
- Jim is the best chairman that our organization could have hoped for.
- One day, Helen hopes to be the chairman of this company.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines chairwoman as “a woman in charge of a meeting or organization.” Clearly, this term is not gender-neutral and only refers to a female. That means it should not be used if the chairman of an organization is a man.
However, as mentioned before, chairman is considered to be gender-neutral, so while chairwoman is acceptable for a female chairman, “chairman” is also acceptable for a female in the same position. That means it is a matter of personal opinion, or perhaps what the chairman wants to be called.
Here are some examples of how to use “chairwoman” in a sentence:
- If things continue like this, Akari will become our new chairwoman soon.
- Greta specified that she wanted to be called “chairwoman” in the organization.
- I thought the company had a chairwoman, but the person in charge is actually a man.
- Ms. Walters does not care if she is called chairman or chairwoman, officially.
- The chairwoman laid out her strategy for the meeting to everyone.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines chairperson as “a person in charge of a meeting or organization.” This definition is identical to the definition for “chairman,” proving that both terms can be used in a gender-neutral context. However, most people prefer to use chairman instead of chairperson.
This is mostly because “chairperson” just sounds awkward and strange to most people. Imagine saying “policeperson” as a gender-neutral term for a police officer, or “businessperson” instead of businessman or businesswoman. It just doesn’t sound natural to most people, so it is not used very often.
This is not to say that it is never used, but most people simply use chairwoman for a woman or chairman as a gender-neutral term.
Here are some examples of how you could use “chairperson” in a sentence:
- Who is the chairperson of this corporation?
- I have yet to meet the chairperson of this company.
- Mike is a very good chairperson, in touch with his subordinates.
- Janet will soon become the chairperson of this organization.
- Can someone direct me to the chairperson of this meeting?
Is It Correct to Say “Chairlady?”
It is correct to use “chairlady” as a synonym for chairwoman. However, it’s not a particularly popular choice. You won’t find many people actually using the term “chairlady”, but this does not mean it is wrong, just uncommon.
Like the other terms mentioned so far, usage of “chairlady” over any of the other options comes down to personal preference, or at most, whatever someone with a chairman’s position refers to be called. There is no official consensus on “chairlady” being wrong. You would use it much like chairwoman:
- Our chairlady is a woman of drive and commitment.
- I have not spoken to our chairlady yet, do you know where she is?
- Monica holds the title of chairlady in this organization.
What Is the Gender-Neutral Term for “Chairman?”
Both “chairman” and “chairperson” are considered acceptable gender-neutral terms for the position of chairman by most dictionaries, including the Cambridge dictionary. However, there is another option that is often used today to avoid the issue of gender-neutrality altogether.
That option is the term “chair.” In many cases, people simply refer to a chairman as “the chair.” This title removes all aspects of gender from the position, making it an ideal word for gender-neutral usage. On top of that, it doesn’t sound very awkward to say. However, all three options are acceptable.
Here are some examples of “chairman, chairperson, and chair” being used as gender-neutral terms in sentences:
- I am not aware of the identity of the company’s chairperson.
- The chairman is waiting to meet with us upstairs.
- The chair has called the meeting to order.
- This meeting will be presided over by the company chair.
- Anyone could hold the title of chair if they get promoted into it.
Which Is Used the Most?
This graph from Google’s Ngram Viewer reveals the frequency with which “chairman, chairwoman, chairperson, chairlady, and chair are used. Upon close inspection, “chairlady” is almost never used, being dozens of times less common than the other terms.
Surprisingly, “chairwoman” is the second least commonly used term, being used roughly eight times less than the next term, chairperson. “Chairperson” itself is used about ten times less than either “chairman” or “chair,” both of which are used about the same.
Suffice to say, the popular opinion seems to be the usage of “chairman” or “chair” even for gender-neutral purposes.
“Chairman, chairwoman, chairperson, chairlady, and chair” are all acceptable: none of them are grammatically incorrect or considered unacceptable by consensus. However, “chairman” and “chair” are used much more often and are considered the best gender-neutral options.
Martin holds a Master’s degree in Finance and International Business. He has six years of experience in professional communication with clients, executives, and colleagues. Furthermore, he has teaching experience from Aarhus University. Martin has been featured as an expert in communication and teaching on Forbes and Shopify. Read more about Martin here.