Is It OK To Refer To Women As ‘Girls’?
‘What’s going on?’ asked Charlotte.
‘It’s sports night,’ replied Carrie.
‘It certainly is!’ quipped Samantha. ‘Come on, girls. Let the games begin…’
So far, so Sex and the City Season 2. Anything offensive about any of that?
Not that I can see.
Skip forward a few years – to last week – and Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale is speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Discussing forthcoming plans to prevent MPs from employing their spouses (and other family members) if they intend to remunerate them using taxpayers’ money, Roger argued: ‘[My wife] is utterly dedicated to her job. As indeed are the other girls in my office.’
Notice anything offensive about that?
As one listener commented…
Why is it OK for women to call other women ‘girls’, but not for men? Indeed, is it even OK for women to do it?
This issue is far from black and white. In fact, it’s undeniably grey.
I’d say most women agree it’s OK for them to refer to their girlfriends, Samantha-style, as ‘girls’. Because it’s friendly, isn’t it? It’s light-hearted, it’s informal and it makes everybody feel youthful and carefree – like the day they first met, when they probably were girls. Similarly, I imagine most women wouldn’t have a problem with their parents referring to them as ‘girls’ – as in: ‘Darling, ask the girls what they want to do…’. At any – and every – age, we will always be our parents’ children.
Conversely, I would say most women would not welcome the description ‘girl’ in a work scenario. ‘These are the marketing girls,’ your boss says, walking a new member of the team round the office and pointing in your direction. Yeah, that’d get my back up. Firstly, let’s not forget, the definition of ‘a girl’ is a female who has not yet reached adulthood – in this country, that’s someone who is under 18. Going by the law, girls are only allowed to be employed on the proviso they are either in training or still undertaking education, part-time. To be called ‘a girl’ when you are an adult and a full-time employee, with adequate qualifications, is therefore somewhat undermining.
Secondly, there’s the issue of over-familiarity. There have to be boundaries in the workplace. Whilst being referred to as ‘a girl’ when you are by definition ‘a woman’ might be OK and complimentary amongst friends, it’s just not the same in an office. As soon as you’re wearing your professional (adult) hat, you expect to be treated as such. Actual age is irrelevant – both yours and that of the offending ‘girl-caller’. If a 50-something-year-old boss – male or female – called 30-something-year-old me ‘a girl’, I’d find it just as grating as if a 21-year-old intern did. Stop right there, – show some respect!
So, is it that it’s ok to call a woman ‘a girl’ in a social context, just not in a professional one? Again, grey, grey, grey... I have no problem with a male friend referring to me as ‘one of the girls’ – in the same way I’d refer to them as ‘one of the boys’ – because I know my friends don’t consider me akin to an inexperienced teenager. There’s no reason to feel patronised in that scenario; we do it to each other because, to us, we will always be the girls and boys we once were. However, if one of my parents’ friends asked what ‘girls my age’ thought about XYZ, that’s a different kettle of fish. It’s certainly worthy of an internal eye roll – or, you know, a scowl...
Ultimately, it’s about awareness. Whilst it might have been OK back in the day – when men could call women ‘fillies’ [sigh] – anyone who has any understanding/knowledge/consciousness of the feminist revolution currently underway – and a ‘revolution’ it truly is – would obviously stop short before referring to women as ‘girls’ – whether they knew them a lot or a little, and especially if they didn’t know them at all. Those that don’t have this awareness should be pitied, more than berated. Evidently, they have no idea that identifying women in that way not only outs them as dinosaurs, but ignorant ones too.
What’s the solution? Stick to ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’. If for no other reason than this: Twitter storms don’t ignite on account of over-politeness.
At least, not yet they don’t...