No more girls - we're over 18!

I would be a wealthy woman if I had a £/$/Euro for every time I have heard a grown adult women referred to as a girl in the workplace. Yet I have never heard an adult man referred to as a ‘boy’. In today’s post I look at why the word ‘girl’ is still routinely used in the workplace to describe female professionals ranging from graduates to managers and why it’s time for us all to ditch the term for good.

We’re Over 18!  To me the word ‘girl’ identifies the fact that a female is under-18 as this is the legally defined age of adulthood in most western countries. Even then, I personally refer to older teenage girls as ‘young women’ to acknowledge the fact that they are beginning to assume the roles and responsibilities of the adult world. These days, given that the majority of people in the modern workplace are over 18, the continuing use of the word ‘girl’ to describe an adult female in the workplace is not only inappropriate, it’s factually incorrect.

Mind The Maturity Gap’  The reason that using the infantilising word ‘girl’ to describe grown women matters, is that it creates an implied maturity gap between men and women in the workplace. This has a subtle knock on effect on our perceptions of gravitas, charisma and the ability to lead. This is particularly pertinent as both sexes climb the career ladder and when we are considering men and women for leadership positions. Whilst the ‘girls’ are busy ‘growing’ into womanhood in the early (and not so early stages) of their careers, men are inhabiting their adult male roles as ‘men’ from the get-go.

So do we actually have a problem with the word ‘woman’ ? When researching this topic, I had to acknowledge that it’s not just men who refer to women as ‘girls’ in the workplace, many women refer to their female colleagues (and indeed themselves) as ‘girls’ too. So have females got a problem with the term ‘woman’ and is the image conjured up by the word so unappealing that we avoid using it?

For inspiration, I turned to the 2012 debate in France, when the French officially abolished the term ‘Mademoiselle’ or ‘Miss’ in a legal context, citing the fact that it was sexist and no such status or age-related equivalent existed for men. My research unearthed some surprising interviews  in which French women said they enjoyed being referred to as ‘Mademoiselle’ because it made them feel young and vital as opposed to being referred to by the more middle-aged term ‘Madame’. I can’t admit to being immune from this age-related vanity either, as when I lived in France as a student it always gladdened my heart to be referred to as ‘Mademoiselle’ as opposed to ‘Madame’. Perhaps for young women then, it’s about re-claiming and reframing the word ‘woman’ to encompass a myriad of qualities such as vitality, gravitas, maturity and light-heartedness and accepting the term at a much earlier point in our lives?

 Guys and Girls  When discussing the terms we use to describe men and women with some friends, I encountered the argument that we are heavily influenced in the English speaking world by American culture and the term ‘girls’ is just the natural female equivalent of the ubiquitous term ‘guys’. I accept that may be true but ‘guy’ is still a term which conjures up the image of an adult male whereas ‘girl’ is a term rooted in female childhood.  

What’s the alternative? I know what you’re thinking; ’all this gender equality stuff is difficult and leaves me unsure of what words I should use in case I offend anyone’. I hear you, and the language of gender equality is an evolving field where we need to de-construct masculine terms and start using words which are inclusive for both genders. Like what???? Well, this is where I turn back to the U.S for inspiration. This weekend, whilst watching a ‘Modern Family’ marathon,  I noticed that all mixed gender groups were referred to either as ‘folks’ or ‘people’. For example, instead of saying ‘Come on guys, time to go’ on the TV show they said ‘come on people’. It’s the same with the American English usage of the word ‘folks’. Have you noticed how President Obama frequently uses this term when addressing (and including) the American people? Both of these words could be good substitutes for ‘guys’ ‘girls’ and even ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ in a gender- neutral workplace.

It’s ‘political correctness’ gone mad..!!!! Well firstly, let me assure you that there isn’t anything ‘political’ about calling an adult female a ‘woman’ just as there isn’t anything ‘political’ about calling an adult male a ‘man’. Neither of these terms is ‘politically correct’, but ‘factually correct’. Gender equality, like all equality, is about inclusiveness and although we may make mis-steps along the way, to achieve lasting change, we must start by altering the small things we do and say in our every day lives and gradually culture and language will start to shift. When talking about ‘women’ and ‘girls’ in the workplace, I think it’s time we all grew up and called a spade a spade, a man a man and a woman a woman!


*this blog originally appeared in Huff Post in Nov 2015 & was written by Genderbuzz CEO Natasha Stromberg.