Journey to Good

Let's Stop Referring to People as "Girls" in Professional Settings

Education JourneyAnne Worth

Image credit: Jeremiah Worth

Last week as I walked into a client meeting with a co-worker, we were greeted with a, “Hi girls.” 

Inwardly, I cringed. I’m well over the age of 12 (I point that out because many people consider either 12 or 18 the oldest age of a girl).

Not everyone seems to know (or care) that it’s not ok to use the word “girl” to describe an adult in a professional setting. 

It’s not news that there’s an awareness problem surrounding this subject and it applies to people of different generations, backgrounds and genders. People have been talking about this for years, and not just Mayim Bialik, but she’s talking about it too

Yet, it continues, and some adults continue to feel diminished by it. Even if a person doesn’t feel diminished by being called a “girl”, it could be causing subconscious damage. “Girl” literally means “female child,” after all. Pair that with a greeting to start off a professional meeting, and we’ve got trouble.

Colleen and her female colleague have also experienced this language at work, and on a regular basis. If all of us are experiencing this use of the word “girl” in professional settings, then we thought many others are as well.

More reasons to care

We've seen the use of "girl" language in a professional setting negatively affect adults for different reasons: 

  • A female may feel patronized by the use of the word, especially when it is delivered by a client, boss or person of authority, male or female
  • A black female may feel the use of the word can reveal implicit racial biases
  • A person who does not identify with the female gender may feel disrespected, unbeknownst to the person speaking to them

Feeling like a hypocrite: never a good feeling

After the cringe-worthy incident where I was addressed as a girl, I reflected on my own language at work.

I recall several times when I've personally used an expression like, “Thanks, girl,” with people on my team. After finding some enjoyment in Ryan Gosling “Hey, girl” memes, “You go, girl” expressions and song lyrics like “Who run the world? Girls!”, “Thanks, girl,” was a phrase that felt casual and familiar to me. I realize now that it could have been interpreted very differently.

If there’s one constant you can count on, it’s that language change is constant.
— Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl)

Even Google seems confused on what a girl is, or perhaps they are simply reporting the current reality of our language nuances. They say a girl is, “a young or relatively young woman," and that "girl" can be used informally to describe, “Women who mix socially or belong to a particular group, team, or profession.” Example in a sentence: "I look forward to having lunch with the girls."

The fact that female professionals like me use these phrases to describe others doesn’t help societal progress. I would argue that we’ve even managed to influence how the word is defined. These realizations hurt, considering I have long thought of myself as a feminist.

Preferred pronouns

This topic isn’t just about feminism, though. This is about respecting the gender associations of all individuals. 

During my self reflection, I also thought of times when I have said, “Thanks, guys,” to describe a group of people of different genders. 

Simply put, as professionals (and good people), we need to recognize that it's not possible to tell someone’s preferred pronouns just by looking at them, and depending on who you’re talking to, you could offend.

For some, this is already known and accepted, but it’s time to make this more mainstream.

What other language can be used to address people in professional settings?

Greet people by name
Simply greet people by their name. Make it a point to get to know your colleagues and how they prefer to be addressed.

Use more neutral terms like "team" or "people"
Use language that speaks to the team or group of people with whom you're working.

The singular "they"
Using the singular "they" as a gender neutral singular pronoun is becoming more popular these days, but you may face people judging your grammar. This creates an opportunity to educate your audience and show you're up-to-date on changes to both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. To learn more about this topic, listen to this Grammar Girl episode.

If you are unsure, you can always choose to ask for someone's preferred pronouns.

Still a long way to go on this journey

Gender ethics affects us all, and it’s up to us to decide whether or not to personally care enough to change our own habits. 

For me, this topic is crazy simple: It’s about respect for other humans on earth. 

After criticizing another’s language choices, I realized I wasn’t fully PC on this topic, and it wasn’t a good feeling.

Going forward, I’m committed to stop referring to adults as “girls,” and I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

Do you or do you know someone who has been affected by gender ethics? Do you find yourself using the word “girl” or “boy” to describe colleagues in a professional setting? Do you love the song, “Run the World (Girls)”? Leave us a comment.