Women delegates throw chair at boys' talk

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Leaders of the Association of Colleges have been forced into a damage-limitation exercise after a stream of complaints of sexism at the organisation's first conference.

Dozens of female and male delegates formally objected to comments made by AOC chair Howard Phelps when opening and closing the event in Cardiff last week. Mr Phelps greeted the 435 delegates, more than a fifth of whom were women, with the words "Welcome gentlemen". As they prepared to depart, he told them "Get off home now, boys", prompting calls of "What about the girls?" from some in the audience.

The routine of comedian Max Boyce, whose speech at the conference dinner centred largely on the theme of rugby, also found little favour with some female delegates.

Fears of a public relations disaster for the four-month-old AOC have prompted chief executive Roger Ward to act now to prevent a repeat of the problems at next year's conference.

The Network of Women Managers, a research and campaign group for women seeking management roles in further and continuing education, has been invited to contribute to planning of the 1997 event in order to ensure an improved gender balance among speakers and chairs of seminars.

This year, six main speakers were male and three female, not including politicians and AOC leaders, all of whom were male. Out of 31 seminars, only four were chaired by women. The chairs were drawn from the AOC board, which has two female members and 12 male.

Mr Ward has also pledged to ban the word "chairman" from all AOC publications in favour of "chair". Mr Phelps is referred to as chairman throughout the conference agenda. The AOC will now send out letters to all colleges outlining its commitment to the use of "inclusive language".

Joanna Tait, former chair of the Network of Women Managers and principal of Bishop Auckland College, said most women principals and chairs of governors at the conference had been "absolutely horrified" by the way delegates were addressed.

She welcomed the AOC's pledges of a new approach, but warned real change would take determination. "I am happy that out of adversity comes great progress, but we must look to the future and make sure this is not just a token but a real embedded commitment to equal opportunities."

The AOC has also taken up suggestions that the speaker at next year's conference dinner should be female.

Despite problems at the conference, the Network of Women Managers has scored greater success in securing inclusive language with the AOC than with the Further Education Funding Council. Its request that the FEFC use the term "chair" was refused.

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