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Is it time to get rid of the term ‘master’ bedroom?

By Mikaela Fowler

Is a push to phase out the term “master bedroom” the right decision for modern times, or political correctness gone mad?

It’s a question bothering the real estate industry, as the origin or meaning of many words and brands – think Red Skins and Chico lollies – come under the spotlight in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and a heightened level of social consciousness generally.

The New York Times reported this month that several industry groups there were planning to eliminate the term “master bedroom”, following the lead of other US real estate brokerage communities.

While the origins of the term aren’t 100 per cent clear, some feel it has undertones of sexism or racism, given master was a word commonly used during times of slavery.

According to some sources, the first recorded mention of a “master’s bedroom” was in a 1926 Sears mail order catalogue in the US. Slavery was abolished in the country in 1865.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, says language is constantly evolving, but the term “master bedroom” hasn’t been on the radar until recently.

“Most Australians aren’t going to make that connotation of ‘master’ being someone who has slaves or ‘master’ being a man,” she says. “I imagine that for most people it won’t enter their heads; it certainly has never been something I’ve thought of, and I teach gender studies.”

However she says there is a growing “hypersensitivity” around words due to events playing out globally. Social media is also giving people a bigger platform on which to raise issues of concern – and force change.

In the US, companies and programmers have begun reconsidering the words master and slave, which have been widely used in computing and other technical contexts for years, to show when one process or entity controls another.

Back in Australia, Dr Rosewarne says governments can’t issue a decree when it comes to using language.

But she believes phasing out “master bedroom” is a step in a more modern, inclusive direction. “Just because we used to do it that way in the 1970s doesn’t mean it still works.”

While many Australian real estate advertisements still use the term, some in the industry, such as Wendy Chamberlain, of Chamberlain Property Advocates, go to great pains to avoid it.

“I think words have a charge behind them that not everybody understands, so when you talk about the slavery – people go ‘it’s just a master bedroom’, but for somebody else it could be a derogatory term,” she says.

“I think in this day and age let’s just call it the main bedroom or the primary.”

Chamberlain says she doubts real estate institutes could mandate such a change, which would more likely have to take place at an agency level.

At McNeill Real Estate, director Janet McNeill has steered clear of the term for more than a decade.“It’s just that it’s a term that always makes me think master-slave,” says McNeill, who uses “main bedroom” instead.

“Obviously also a lot of people think that the master is the male, and nowadays there’s a heck of a lot more equality and I think that it’s a term that can certainly easily be dropped.”

Developers are also closely considering the words they use to woo clients.

Nic Cuni, sales director at Franze Developments, says he’s used many terms to describe the biggest bedroom in the house during his 16 years in real estate, including premium suite and master suite.

However he believes it’s time for a change. “Words matter, and as an industry we should make a more socially conscious choice in the words and phrases we use in our marketing.”

Cuni says “his and hers” – not exactly inclusive of gay couples – is another outdated property term that should be shelved. He suggests “shared” as a better replacement.

It all begs the question: could other house or property lingo, such as landlord, “man cave”, the not-so-humble butler’s pantry or even king and queen beds all someday come under scrutiny?

Whatever the case, it may take a while until Australia’s real estate sector, still dealing with the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, reaches a consensus on what to label the largest bedroom in the house.

President of the Real Estate Institute of Australia Adrian Kelly, for one, isn’t keen to weigh in. “The REIA has no comment on this topic,” he says. “There are currently more pressing issues at play relating to the real estate industry.”


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