Let’s Stop Calling Women “Girls”

Office culture is often such an intimate microcosm that colloquial shorthands like nicknames, acronyms, and references to inside jokes are inevitable. Codes for procedures and projects can make an office seem like its own little country — and between tricky etiquette calls and delicate relationships, it definitely can be. But whether you work for a scrappy startup or a big corporation, the shorthand for “lady professions” is almost ubiquitous.

I’ve worked at companies where the publicity department was affectionately referred to as the “PR girls” — by both men and women. Somehow the all-female marketing team gets reduced to the “marketing girls” and hardworking sales colleagues are minimized to “salesgirls.”

Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley RF

While an overview of the team would confirm that, yes, all members are indeed female, calling them “girls” demotes them — and assigns them childish characteristics in an otherwise professional setting.

I see it across other industries too: Makeup girl. Front-desk girl. Cleaning lady.

The fact that female-dominated fields like PR, cosmetics, office administration, maintenance, and marketing are routinely perceived as “fluffy” further lends itself to this type of reductive language. But referring to highly skilled makeup artists and public relations execs as “girls,” however subtly, downplays their ability and professionalism. As if their jobs aren’t really jobs at all. Or, rather, that the women occupying them are somehow innately amateurs.

These are professions. Paid ones. You can’t just hire any “girl” to apply your makeup before a TV appearance or execute a successful marketing campaign or manage logistics for an office. But the implication with “girl” talk is that you can.

Like a lot of soft sexism these days, it’s subtle. But it’s all water from the same well: Women are stupid. Women don’t have expertise. Adult women aren’t women at all; they’re “girls.”

There are a lot of women-in-the-workplace issues that have yet to be resolved: paid parental leave, sexual harassment, the wage gap, the lack of women in leadership roles. But failing to first and foremost recognize grown women as competent workers cleanly overlaps with all of them.

After all, “girls” don’t need a decent maternity leave. “Girls” don’t warrant the same pay as men. “Girls” also don’t provide reliable accounts of harassment or convey authority as managers. Ultimately, “girls” don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Devaluing the work of female employees with this casual rhetoric perpetuates the notion that we are conducting meetings and selling products between being — well, “girls,” instead of valued adult workers.

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Tagged in: Culture, Koa Beck