How an attempt to introduce a gender-neutral title was rejected by the legislature

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By Varda Bondy and Margaret Doyle

This is a case study of a recent attempt to introduce a gender-neutral title for ombuds in new legislation. The attempt failed when the legislature deemed arguments about brand recognition were more persuasive than arguments about equality.

In 2015 the Northern Ireland Assembly, and specifically the Office for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister Committee (OFMDFM Committee), consulted on draft legislation for a reformed public-sector ombud – the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsperson (NIPSO). The Bill itself made it clear that using the term ‘ombudsperson’ was a deliberate choice, not an oversight:

‘Name of the office

  1. The Committee preferred that the new office should be known as the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) as opposed to Public Services Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PSONI).
  2. During the drafting of the Bill the Committee decided to replace Ombudsman with Ombudsperson as the latter is unambiguously gender neutral.’

Commenting on the consultation responses received, the Committee explained:

‘The drafter’s research suggested that ‘Ombudsperson (or Ombud or Ombuds) would be a gender neutral term consistent with the general commitment that legislation should be gender neutral. The initial clauses were drafted using Ombudsperson for the Committee to consider. The Committee preferred a term which was clearly gender neutral to an ordinary English-speaking member of the public. The Committee was also mindful that ‘Chairperson’ is now commonly used. Accordingly, the Committee agreed that the Bill should be drafted as the Public Services Ombudsperson Bill.’

The terminology was not an explicit part of the consultation. Nevertheless, in its consultation response the Executive Committee of the Ombudsman Association highlighted its objection to the term, arguing that use of the term ‘ombudsman’ is important to protect the brand recognition of these services and schemes and that its members ‘have cultivated the public’s awareness of these values to encourage the use of their services.’.

“The Association shares concerns expressed by others that using the title ‘ombudsperson’ will cause confusion amongst the public and stakeholders at a time when the title ‘ombudsman’ is becoming more recognised and trusted. The Association would therefore urge the Assembly to amend the title of the proposed body to ‘the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman’.”

The Ad Hoc Committee also received submissions from the International Ombudsman Institute, the International Ombudsman Association, and the Welsh and Irish Ombudsmen that the term ‘ombudsman’ is of Scandinavian origin, its original meaning in Swedish is ‘representative’, and it is therefore already gender-neutral.

The committee commissioned a briefing, from the Research and Information Service, on the etymology of the term. This document, entitled ‘Ombudsman Gender Neutral?’ (Northern Ireland Assembly, Paper 81/15, 9 June 2015), cited arguments on either side of the divide (as to whether or not ‘ombudsman’ is gender neutral). These included the UN Multilingual Terminology Database, which states that ‘ombudsman’ is rendered gender neutral by use of ‘ombudsperson’, ‘ombuds’ or ‘ombud’ (or even ‘ombudswoman’ if preferred by a female office holder).

The briefing noted that the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman had in the past responded to a question on this issue: ‘Government’s linguistic experts had stated that ombudsman and other similar words with the suffix –man. i.a. [sic] talman, talesman, fortroendeman, are gender neutral in the Swedish Language’. ‘Talesman’ is ‘spokesman’, clearly not a gender-neutral word.

A native Danish speaker’ provided a narrative which made its way to the research report without censure or comment:

‘I have read your description of what the word “ombudsman” means in Swedish – a “representative of the people” – and I’m sorry to say you’re wrong! What you’re referring to is the institution of the ombudsman as an arbiter for the Parliament – instituted in Sweden in 1809. But the original word “ombudsman” is much older. It was used in Scandinavia in medieval times to describe the messenger who relayed the king’s message to his local chiefs. In Danish (my native language) the word “bud” means “message”, “om” means “around”, and “mand” means “person”.’

The required censure ought to have been obvious to anyone with no need of knowledge of Scandinavian languages: the contributor provided a neat breakdown of the term, apart from the final statement that ‘mand’ means ‘person’. It means that in the same way that ‘man means ‘person’, i.e. woman is subsumed within the generic ‘man’. To say that the term Ombudsman is gender neutral because ‘man’ equals ‘person’, a statement we strongly disagree with in any event, is different from the OA’s and others’ argument that that this is an indivisible string of letters with a particular meaning and therefore can’t be tinkered with. Furthermore, the Northern Ireland Assembly’s adoption of the term ‘chairperson’, and Members’ consistent use of the pronoun ‘he’ with ‘ombudsman’ (as demonstrated in Assembly meeting minutes), render its support for this argument ludicrous.

The briefing nevertheless failed to address the underlying issue of sexism in language and why it mattered. It also stopped short of reaching a conclusive decision, but it noted that there are pragmatic as well as symbolic reasons for using an alternatives, including the fact that ‘a recent review of the UK Financial Ombudsman Service suggested that people might not find ombudsman a welcoming word’ and that most English speakers people wouldn’t know what an ombudsman is. Even more persuasive is a quote in the briefing from an exchange of emails between the then Concordia University (Canada) Ombudsperson, Suzanne Belson, and the then Ombudsman for the city of Dayton (Ohio), Marie D Ferguson, in which Belson wrote:

‘Although I am very committed to the title ombudsman – because of all the word meant to me after having done the job for so long (and because it bugged me that so often men get to be men and women get to be persons) – I decided to change to ombudsperson for two fairly practical reasons: one, I found myself repeatedly having to justify, explain and support the rationale for using ombudsman and it was getting tedious; and two, in my view the etymology of the word becomes irrelevant at some point if we’re talking about modern English usage at a time when we know the effects of non-gender-neutral language. (This seemed especially important given the work we do.)’

At the Assembly debate at the Bill’s further consideration stage, the findings of the briefing were presented as unambiguous: ‘

‘The word is of Scandinavian origin, and its original meaning in Swedish is “representative”. We received a research paper on the etymology of the term. We were advised that “ombudsman” was a trusted and recognised brand and that to change the title could cause confusion among the public. … research was commissioned into the etymology of the term “ombudsman”, and it became clear that the history of the word suggests that it is not gender-specific, which may be counter-intuitive, …. In the end, the Committee for OFMDFM was satisfied that the term “ombudsman” is not gender-specific’. 

Sinn Féin argued, in a lone voice, that they would prefer the title to remain ‘ombudsperson’:

‘We understand the origin of the word “ombudsman” and the question relating to the gender issue and it being a gender-neutral word. By the same token, we believe that there has been an ongoing cultural change in the last number of years whereby people tend to move away from using the word “man”, which most people here obviously accept has a gender definition. On that basis, we would prefer that the name remained “ombudsperson”. We think that that is becoming much more prevalent in common parlance and the understanding of people throughout civic society. … Not only is it specifically related to this particular Bill, it is part of an ongoing, changing cultural public narrative around the use of gender definitions when people are addressed in the civic world.’

Nevertheless, the argument for brand recognition proved more persuasive than the argument for equalities and anti-discrimination and the evidence of alternative terms in use, and the Assembly proceeded to make the hundreds of amendments to change ‘ombudsperson’ to ‘ombudsman’.



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