Gender pay gap – how do ombuds services fare?

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Gender pay equality isn’t about who gets the bigger ice cream (important though that is)

By Margaret Doyle

Here in Britain, it’s hard to ignore the recent hubbub about gender pay equality. The other day, 4 April, was the big reveal. All private-sector and most public-sector employers with 250 or more employees are now required, under the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017, to publish data on the differences in average hourly pay for men and women in their organisation – the gender pay gap. The new regulations require organisations to report annually (and initially by 4 April 2018), on:

  • the difference between the average hourly rate of pay paid to male and female employees
  • the difference between the average bonus paid to male and female employees;
  • the proportions of male and of female employees who receive bonuses; and
  • the relative proportions of male and female employees in each quartile pay band of the workforce

The differences in hourly rate must be reported as both mean average (the result of adding all the rates and dividing between the number of rates) and median average (the mid-range number of all the rates). Mean averages give a useful overall average but can be skewed by bonuses applied to only some employees. Median averages give a ‘typical’ rate, what a middle-earning employee earns; they don’t tell you as much about the overall picture but are also less likely to be distorted by outliers.

The resulting data (available on https://gender-pay-gap.service.gov.uk/public/assets/pdf/gender-pay-gap-explained.pdf) have been pored over, analysed, celebrated and dismissed in the news over the past few days. Some organisations have had shamefully poor report cards; others surprisingly good ones. The reasons for gender pay disparity are many and complex, and the gender pay gap reporting requirement is a fairly crude measure of equality, but it is one that can be measured, and in this sense the initial reports serve as a valuable benchmark against which to gauge progress. How organisations respond to the results is the true test of their integrity in relation to gender pay equality.

Is this about equal pay?

The gender pay gap is not the same as equal pay, which is paying men and women the same for the same or similar work. Failing to comply with the equal pay legislation is illegal (and has been since the Equal Pay Act of 1970, although it is now covered by the Equality Act 2010). However, having a gender pay gap is not illegal (although failing to comply with the 2017 Regulations is – see below).

The gender pay gap is the difference in average hourly wage of all men and women across the organisation. The pay gap generally reflects men being paid more than women, on average. In some organisations, the pay gap is in favour of women; ie the average hourly wage is higher for women than for men. This is true for 13% of organisations reporting. A further 7% reported no pay gap at all. The vast majority reported a pay gap in favour of men.

Failure to comply with an obligation imposed by these Regulations constitutes an ‘unlawful act’ within the meaning of section 34 of the Equality Act 2006 (c. 3), which empowers the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to take enforcement action. The EHRC has been in the news making it clear that it will be rigorous in investigating non-compliance with the Regulations and, where necessary, taking enforcement action.

What does it tell us?

The median gender pay gap in Britain in 18.4%, according to the Office for National Statistics. However, that figure covers all organisations, not only those with 250 or more enployees. The median gender pay gap reported to the government ‘gender pay gap portal’ is 9.7%, according to the BBC (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43651780). Almost eight out of ten of the more than 10,000 organisations reporting on the portal pay men more than women.

The gender pay gap identifies potential structural inequality, not inequality or discrimination at an individual level. Although there is some criticism of the crude nature of the data being reported, it is generally accepted that reporting on the gender pay gap reveals patterns and trends about the proportion of women in senior positions, which in turn gives insights into potential barriers for women in the workplace, including the effects of prejudice and unconscious gender bias and of caring responsibilities (for children, elderly parents, etc) still primarily being taken on by women. Identifying a gap in pay can help organisations see that there’s a problem that needs addressing.

A female employee earns 33p for every £1 paid to a male employee of Ryanair.

A female employee of the Financial Ombudsman Service earns 93p to every £1 paid to a male employee.

These problems will be specific to the employer or sector. For example, many airlines are reporting a high gender pay gap because pilots, who are paid much more than cabin crew, are predominantly male. In education, one factor is that women with family responsibilities are drawn to a sector that offers part-time and term-time work, which for administrative staff and teaching assistants usually means lower hourly pay. These are not excuses for tolerating a pay gap, however. Rather than tolerating a pay gap, organisations need to consider their recruitment and promotion strategies.

What causes a gender pay gap?

Having a gender pay gap is not evidence of intentional discrimination but does reflect entrenched patterns and as such it invites honest reflection on the part of organisations. A number of complex factors influence an organisation’s gender pay gap (as noted by the EHRC), including but not limited to:

  • Men at the top: The highest paid sectors are male-dominated; women often end up in employment sectors that offer narrower scope for financial reward.
  • Undervaluing some work over others: Some sectors or jobs that are primarily female dominated are not valued and thus not as well paid as male-dominated sectors and jobs.
  • Not sharing caring: In the UK caring for family and children is still predominantly seen as ‘women’s work’ and mostly carried out by women. The gender pay gap is affected by more women being in part-time work and taking time out in order to accommodate caring responsibilities.
  • Stereotyping and unconscious bias: Recruitment and promotion are key to addressing the imbalance if women in senior positions, where pay is highest. Efforts need to be made to combat bias, prejudices and assumptions. Assumptions may also be made about women not asking for or accepting promotions because of their caring responsibilities or not negotiating higher pay on appointment. Many employees assume pay parity and are not aware of gender discrepancies and hence do not push for change.

More details on the factors that contribute to a gender pay gap are given in the EHRC’s research report, The Gender Pay Gap, published in August 2017.

How do ombuds fare?

Four ombuds schemes have reported: Legal Ombudsman (LeO), Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) and Ombudsman Services (OS).

SCHEME

MEAN

MEDIAN

Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) Women’s mean hourly rate is 7.2% lower than men’s Women’s median hourly rate is 6% lower than men’s
Legal Ombudsman (LeO) Women’s mean hourly rate is 10% lower than men’s Women’s median hourly rate is 0% lower than men’s
Ombudsman Services Women’s mean hourly rate is 13% lower than men’s Women’s median hourly rate is 4.3% lower than men’s
Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) Women’s mean hourly rate is 9.9% lower than men’s Women’s median hourly rate is 9.8% lower than men’s

Staff are divided into four groups (quartiles) according to level of pay: top quartile (highest pay), upper middle, lower middle and lower quartile (lowest paid). In all four ombud services, women are in the majority in the top two quartiles. In PHSO, LeO, and Ombudsman Services women are in the majority in all four quartiles.

Three of the services award bonuses: In FOS, roughly equal percentages, 96% of both men and women, received bonuses, although women’s mean average bonus was 6.5% below men’s. In PHSO, 25% of women and 26% of men received bonuses, and women’s mean average bonus was 6.1% higher than men’s. In Ombudsman Services, 18% of women and 14% of men received a bonus, and women’s mean average bonus was 0.9% higher than men’s. LeO did not award bonuses.

Conclusion

Although it’s difficult to reach any robust conclusions from the data, it appears that ombuds’ report cards generally look better than average in terms of pay discrepancy. All except the PHSO had a median pay gap lower than the average reported figure of 9.7%, and the Legal Ombudsman has no median pay gap. Representation of women at the higher-paid levels in all these ombud services is promising. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that all have a gender pay gap, at least in terms of mean average, suggesting work to do to achieve gender equality. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

The problem – and it should be recognised as a problem, even if the averages among ombuds are at or below the national average – needs to be addressed organisationally and individually and requires leadership. At an individual level, training in unconscious bias can help address the pernicious prejudices that we all have and that can manifest themselves in recruitment and promotion decisions. Organisationally, it is important to identify the factors leading to the gap and to review approaches to recruitment, retention, promotion, job grading, and coaching opportunities.

A shared commitment among ombuds to eliminating the gender pay gap would be a great start.

About the author:

Margaret Doyle is a mediator and researcher and manages the ombudsresearch.org.uk website, which was set up as part of a mapping project on the use of informal resolution by ombuds in the UK and Ireland. She is also Senior Research Fellow with the UK Administrative Justice Institute at the University of Essex and an independent member of the Validation Committee of the Ombudsman Association.

 


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’.


‘Manning’ the ombuds barricades

by Varda Bondy and Margaret Doyle

In October 2014, we launched (together with Carolyn Hirst) a mapping study titled ‘The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland ’. We discussed at length whether to use the words ‘ombud/s’ or ‘ombudspersons’ rather than ‘ombudsman/men’, but decided on the latter to avoid the title itself becoming the centre of attention rather than the content of the report.

However, we felt compelled to touch on this question at the launch, which was attended by a number of ombudspeople as well as academics. After presenting one aspect of our findings, concerning the multiplicity of terms used by schemes to describe the same processes and identical terms to describe different ones, we added a closing remark on the problematic matter of terminology in the use of the term ‘ombudsman’ itself. This included an assertion that the word ‘man’ in Swedish means exactly the same as it does in English, and that the argument that the term is gender-neutral therefore does not wash.

That brief remark at the launch attracted responses on Twitter:

‘Term ombudsman dated and needs challenging. Sexist?’

‘I prefer “ombudsperson” to “ombuds” like in America’

‘I prefer ‘ombuds’ but am fine with other terms.’

A much-respected former ombudsperson wrote to us with a series of thoughtful suggestions designed to circumvent the problem. While recognising that the term ombudsman has been ‘de-masculinised elsewhere as in the South African FAIS Ombud and US university Ombuds, it is not making much headway in Europe or the [rest of the] Commonwealth, and… we have to live with the word as it is, not least because it is ‘now included in various statutes(emphasis ours).

He suggested the problem is in the plural; referring to a mixed group of men and women as ‘ombudsmen and ombudswomen’ is laborious, and the term ‘ombudsmen’ clearly denotes that the singular ‘man’ part of the word is masculine, as opposed to being an integral part of the combination of sound ‘ombudsman’. His proposed solutions included:

  • Avoid using the generic plural ‘ombudsmen’. ‘Ombudsman should be confined to use either as a non gender specific noun, or as an adjective.’
  • When referring to entities or services, use ‘ombudsman schemes, offices, or services’.
  • When referring to those who lead ombudsman offices, use ‘heads of ombudsman offices’ or ‘ombudsman post-holders’.
  • When referring to individuals who perform ombudsman decision-making functions, in formal speech or writing, use ‘ombudsman decision makers’.
  • When referring to a mixed group of those heading or working in ombudsman schemes, in more informal or light-hearted speech or writing, use terms such as  ‘ombuds-folk’, ‘ombuds-people’ ‘ombuds-workers’ or ‘the ombudsman community’.

We welcome any such engagement, especially where it recognises the problematic nature of the terminology, but we are perplexed as to why the ombuds community is so intent on engaging in both linguistic and conceptual acrobatics by insisting that ‘man’ does not mean ‘man’.

The NI Ombudsperson Bill

At the risk of generating groans of ‘oh not this again’, we feel compelled to take issue with the disappointing stance taken by the Ombudsman Association (OA) Executive Committee in their response to the recent consultation on the proposed Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsperson (NIPSO) Bill, which, as the title suggests, refers to the office holder throughout as ‘ombudsperson’.

The terminology is not in fact part of the consultation at all, but the OA Executive Committee highlighted its objection to it in its consultation response of 28 May 2015:

“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 Bill itself makes 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.’

We suggest that it would be one thing for the OA not to take a view one way or the other. But to include such a robust objection to the terminology in the proposed legislation appears to be a political stance, aimed at stifling discussion. Instead, the OA could have congratulated the Committee and the Northern Ireland Assembly on its forward thinking in using a truly gender-neutral term that is not yet widely accepted, and if necessary, promote a discussion on other suitable alternatives.

We queried this aspect of the response and expressed concern that the underlying principle of fairness (required for OA membership and cited in the response) does not appear to include equality and anti-discrimination. It may be that the Executive Committee members do not believe the terminology raises equalities issues. They are instead focusing on the need to avoid confusion and protect the ‘brand recognition’ of the term ‘ombudsman’.

‘…the ‘brand’ that the term ombudsman invokes is an important one. The Association’s criteria for ombudsman membership incorporates independence, fairness, effectiveness, openness and transparency, and accountability. Our members have cultivated the public’s awareness of these values to encourage the use of their services.’

Our question is therefore: is the ‘man’ of ‘ombuds-man’ essential to the brand?

Etymology

First, let’s consider the etymology: Proponents of retaining the ‘man’ format often cite the Scandinavian origins of the term. The OA did just that in its response to the NI consultation: “The word ‘Ombudsman’ is Scandinavian and means ‘representative of the people’. The term is gender-neutral in origin and in common usage throughout these islands, including by other schemes with jurisdiction in Northern Ireland.”

The ‘ombudsman’ entry on Wikipedia explains: “An indigenous Swedish, Danish and Norwegian term, ombudsman is etymologically rooted in the Old Norse word umboðsmaðr, essentially meaning “representative” (with the word umbud/ombud meaning proxy, attorney, that is someone who is authorized to act for someone else, a meaning it still has in the Scandinavian languages). … Modern variations of this term include “ombud,” “ombuds,” “ombudsperson,” or “ombudswoman,” and the conventional English plural is ombudsmen.”

If you enter ‘ombudsman’ or ‘ombudsperson’ into Google Translate and translate from English to Swedish, you get ‘ombuds’. Conversely, Google Translate converts ‘ombud’ in Norwegian to ‘ombudsman’ in English. This suggests that in Scandinavia, it is the ‘ombud’ part of the term that distinguishes an ‘ombudsman/woman/person’ from other offices such as adjudicator or commissioner.

We do not argue that we must emulate uses of this term in other countries at all costs, but as Scandinavia is regarded as the cradle of ombudsmanry (another controversial term) and is cited as an authority for ‘man’ not meaning ‘man’, we asked the experts. First, here are some Swedish examples of alternatives to the term ‘ombudsman’, revealed in a quick Google search:

What’s happening in Norway?

For a more in-depth look we explored what is happening in Norway. First, we Googled the Norwegian Wikipedia entry on ‘Ombudsmann’, which we translate to read: ‘Ombudsman (or ombud, which in fact is a label/description of a task one has a duty to undertake) is a person commissioned to protect interests and rights of individuals or groups.’

With that in mind, we wrote to the Norwegian Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud (Likestillings- og diskrimineringsombudet; the ending ‘et’ in Norwegian stands for ‘the’), to ask about the ‘mann’ (‘man’ in Norwegian) part of the word which they had discarded from their title. In response we were told that theirs was the first scheme to adopt the term ‘ombud’ in place of ‘ombudsmann’ when established in 2006.

They sent us the White Paper for the law establishing the Gender Equality Ombud. The document uses the term ‘ombudet’ (the ombud) rather than ‘ombudsmann’ throughout the document, apparently without any need to engage in a terminology discussion or to justify the choice of title, despite being the first scheme to be so named formally.

This made a refreshing departure from what happened in 1979 when a committee was established to consider statutory amendments to the office of the Norwegian Parliamentary Ombudsman. The Select Committee considered the appropriateness of the title ‘Ombudsmann’ and discussed its pros and cons. It noted that the title does not say anything about actual function of the position holder, and importantly, that the term was not gender neutral. On the other hand, it was noted, the title was well incorporated in both Nordic and international usage.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman himself argued at the time that the Ombudsman office was an entirely personal arrangement, in that the Ombudsman must take a personal decision on all cases and cannot delegate decisions to others; the term ‘Ombud’, on the other hand, is more about the office than the person. In other contexts where the expression ‘Ombud’ is used, it is talking about institutions or positions where it is not essential to distinguish between office and person.

It is worth noting that these arguments do not nowadays apply in that most ombudspeople do not decide all the complaints that come before them and that the use of ‘ombudsmen’ by the OA on their website could be read variably as a title attached to the office holders or the scheme, as in:

Ombudsmen exist to deal with complaints from ordinary citizens and consumers about most public bodies and some services in the private sector.

In the end, despite recognising that the term was not gender-neutral, the Select Committee considering amendments to the Office of the Norwegian Parliamentary Ombudsman rejected the minority view that the time has come to replace ‘sivilombudsmann’ with ‘sivilombud’, and concluded that the traditional term was to be retained on the basis that it was so well established that there is no basis for change.

This was 36 years ago.

Fast forward 16 years to 1995, when another discussion paper, evaluating the Children Ombud (established in 1981), offered a different insight into the modern understanding of the term ‘ombud’ vs ‘ombudsman’. Part 3.1 of the document explains that ‘the term ‘ombud’ is a positive concept, used in connection with resolution of social inequality…. In everyday use, ‘ombud’ refers to positions that carry particular activities of representing, protecting or promoting specific interests.’

After a brief reference to its history with the establishment of the first Swedish Ombudsman in 1809, it goes on to say that:

The term “ombudsmann” is one of the few Nordic words that entered the language internationally. In Norway, gender equality has gradually led to the use of the gender-neutral term “ombud“.’(emphasis ours)

‘In Norway, gender equality has gradually led to the use of the gender-neutral term “ombud”.’

The document uses the term ‘ombud’ throughout to denote the office, as in: ‘Ombudene kan ha mange ulike funksjoner’ i.e. ‘the ombuds can have many dissimilar functions’. Hence, the office of ‘Children Ombudsman’ is called in Norwegian ‘Barneombud’,i.e Children Ombud, and the institution is referred to as ‘barneombudsinstitusjonen’ – the children ombud institution.

We accept there is clearly no consensus even in Scandinavia with regard to replacing ‘ombudsman’ with ‘ombud’. So while the Children Ombud (Barneombud) became the model for the equivalent Swedish office established in 1993, the term ‘ombud was not adopted’, and it was instead named ‘Barnombudsmann’ – Children Ombudsman. However, as the above discussions and examples demonstrate, it is not viable to state that ‘ombudsman’ is gender neutral on the basis of its Scandinavian origin, meaning and current use.

Why does it matter?

Research by sociologists and linguistics experts indicates that language does affect behaviour and attitudes. Language, and particularly titles of office, that presume maleness as the norm (‘chairman’, ‘policeman’ etc) have an impact in the context of underlying gender bias in society and women’s lack of representation in public roles. The growing body of research validating the concern is set out in this piece by two academics at the University of Kent:

“For example, when people hear masculine generic language, they predominantly visualize pronoun referents as being male (e.g., Gygax, Gabriel, Sarrasin, Oakhill, & Garnham, 2008; Hamilton, 1988; Moulton, Robinson, & Elias, 1978; Ng, 1990; Stahlberg, Sczesny & Braun, 2001). Other research suggests that sexist language perpetuates male privilege (Kleinman, 2002), influences children’s gender schemas (Hyde, 1984), limits the perception of vocational choices for women (Briere & Lanktree, 1983), influences perceptions of status and competence (Merkel, Maass, & Frommelt, 2010), and even makes women feel ostracized (Stout & Dasgupta, 2011).”

“…research suggests that sexist language perpetuates male privilege, … influences children’s gender schemas, … limits the perception of vocational choices for women, … influences perceptions of status and competence, … and even makes women feel ostracized.”

Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science in the US, wrote a stinging satire on the opposition to adopting gender-neutral language. In “A Person Paper on Purity in Language (1985)”, he used what he admitted was a shocking analogy to expose the absurdity of presenting ‘man’ suffixed words as gender-neutral. In the essay, Hofstadter replaces ‘man’ with ‘white’. Have a read and see what effect it has on your assumptions.

What alternatives?

We don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer to this. But we’d like to encourage people to discuss it rather dismiss it. There are plenty of respectable ombuds organisations around the world that recognise the equalities issues of the term and use alternatives that have, over time, become well established. That alone suggests it’s worthy of discussion.

Let’s look at two option: ‘ombud/s’ and ‘ombudsperson’:

‘Ombud/s’

In Scandinavia, South Africa and New Zealand, the term ‘ombud’ is singular. In Norway:

In South Africa:

In New Zealand:

In the US, the terms ‘ombud’ and ‘ombuds’ are used interchangeably:

*This office uses all four terms—ombud, ombuds, ombudsperson, and ombudsman

  • Use of the term ‘ombuds’ goes back at least to 2006, when the well-known OmbudsBlog was set up:

‘Ombud’ is often used in the context of higher education, not just in North America, where it is the prevailing term, but in Europe as well. For example, the Studentombudet for Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HIOA) mentions her ‘ombuds’ work on Twitter, although she refers to herself as an ‘ombudsperson’ on her blog.

‘Ombudsperson’

‘Ombudsperson’ is recognised by the online Free Dictionary: “A public official who acts as an impartial intermediary between the public and government or bureaucracy, or an employee of an organisation who mediates disputes between employees and management.”

Conclusion, and an invitation to join the conversation

The OA argues in its response to the Northern Ireland consultation that use of the term ‘ombudsman’ is important to protect the brand recognition of these services and schemes. And as discussed in Parliament in February, ‘ombudsman’ is on the list of protected titles (‘Sensitive words and Expressions Regulations’) maintained by the Department for Business:

‘While anyone is free to set up a business providing ADR, ‘ombudsman’ is a sensitive word whose use in a company or business name requires prior approval by the Secretary of State.’

But is it not the ‘ombuds’ part of the term that is meant to be protected? If the intention is that only ‘ombudsman’ should be legally protected (although we note that the Regulations say that ‘that the specified words and expressions are specified in all their plural, possessive and (where relevant) feminine forms’), then even if there were legal protection of the title here in the UK, there’d be no barrier to someone setting up as The Telecoms Ombudsperson, or The Ombud for Health Services, or National Consumer Ombuds Service. It seems disingenuous to take such a literal stance, and contrary to the intention of efforts to protect the meaning of the ombuds role.

Surely it’s time we had this conversation in the UK? Tell us what you think.