When I was growing up in the 1960s, women were routinely referred to as “girls.” The woman’s movement of the 70s and 80s changed the culture so that it became the norm in professional settings and in the media, and much of everyday language, for women to be referred to as “women,” not “girls”—at least for a time. In recent years, I have observed a regression in everyday language, and even in professional settings and in the media, to again refer to women as girls. Is this a big deal? I think so.
First, calling women “girls” is confusing. I heard a newscast about two women in their 60s who went missing. The news anchor kept referring to these women as girls, which I did not understand at first. I had trouble following the story. How many people were missing? Two women and two girls or just the two women? Then, I finally figured out that the two “girls” were the women in their 60s.
Second, referring to man as a “boy” is considered disrespectful. It is equally disrespectful for the female gender to call women “girls,” even if it has become common. This is an example of a double standard in the use of language.
Third, calling women, “girls” carries connotations that live beneath the surface of our awareness, implying that adult females are not fully functioning adults. Girls cannot be expected to make important decisions because they lack life experiences and maturity. Certainly, girls cannot be leaders of men.
Fourth, being called a “girl” is not a positive or even neutral phrase in our culture. “You throw/run/play/cry like a girl” have been the worst insults males can hurl at each other (though female sports heroes are trying to reframe this insult, with a “Thank You!”) Historically, in the hierarchy of ridicule, girls are at the bottom.
Finally, avoiding the word women disempowers the little girls, who aspire to be fully grown women. Think about all the times you have heard a small boy referred to as a “little man,” referencing his accomplishments, successes or appearance at formal events, providing stature to his being. When was the last time you heard a small girl referred to as a “little woman” (other than within the context of the Louisa May Alcott novel, written in 1869)? The most little girls can aspire to is becoming bigger “girls.”
In a professional setting, such as work, I implore you to refer to the adult females you work with as “women,” not “girls.” Please, do not conform to the devolved norms of our culture for the people you manage, your colleagues or even your managers. Adult females are women. Give them the respect they deserve.
Words matter. Use them wisely.