The words we use to describe ourselves and others tell us a lot about our attitudes and beliefs. Words are powerful. They have the capacity to build or destroy. They can be used in a way to inspire, sell and persuade. They can also become loaded with both negative and positive connotations.
The multiple meanings of ‘girl’
The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘girl’ as ‘a female child’. The legal age of adulthood in Australia is 18 years old, so strictly speaking a ‘girl’ is someone under 18. Generally, ‘girl’ has the connotation of youth or childishness.
Girl power. On the flip side, we often understand and accept the word ‘girl’ applying to adult women in a casual context, such as, ‘I’m having a night out with the girls’. It can also have a strong positive context of ‘girl power’ or ‘You go girl!’ The government campaign ‘Girls Get Active’ has a catchy ring to it. Throughout their website, which appears to be aimed at teens and young women in their 20s, the more accurate term ‘young woman’ is used.
The dark side of ‘girl’. The word ‘girl’ has not always been associated with power. At one time, the word ‘girl’ also meant ‘a female servant’ (Oxford dictionary). In the corporate world of the 50s, 60s and 70s, when male managers were the norm and women held support roles like typists and secretaries, bosses commonly used terms like ‘my girl’ when referring to their personal secretary or the ‘girls in the office’. Yet, the bosses, and even junior male personnel, were referred to as ‘men’, not ‘boys’.
Navigating the ‘lady’ minefield
In trying to navigate the gender terminology minefield, many men and women opt for the term ‘lady’. But this is also a loaded word. The Oxford dictionary defines ‘lady’ as ‘A polite or formal way of referring to a woman’, ‘A woman of good social position’ and ‘A courteous, decorous, or genteel woman’. In the United States, the term ‘lady’ can be used as ‘an informal, often brusque, form of address to a woman’ (Oxford dictionary) as in ‘Get out of the way, lady!’
Staying out of trouble at work
If you’re feeling confused you’re not alone. Here are some techniques for keeping your writing neutral and professional.
1. Use gender-neutral words where possible. Over the past three decades, we have successfully replaced many titles at work with gender-neutral ones like ‘police officer’, ‘flight attendant’ and ‘fire fighter’. Avoid job titles like ‘waitress’, ‘Girl Friday’ or terms like ‘lady doctor’ or ‘male nurse’. Instead use ‘wait staff’, ‘office assistant’, ‘doctor’ or ‘nurse’.
2. Use ‘woman’ or ‘young woman’ when referring to female co-workers. Instead of ‘girl’ or ‘lady’, use the word ‘woman’ or ‘young woman’ in the same way you would use ‘man’ or ‘young man’; for example, write ‘There are three women and two men on our team’ not ‘There are three girls and two men on our team’. Or even better, ‘Our team has five members.’ And rather than saying ‘Ask the girl behind the counter,’ use a gender-neutral term and say ‘Ask the customer service officer.’
3. Reserve the word ‘lady’ for times when the person’s name or title demands it. An example of when you would have to use the term ‘lady’ is the Lady Mayoress’s Christmas Gift Appeal. The title ‘Lady’ is also appropriate for peeresses, female relatives of peers, and the wives and widows of knights.
To my mind, the words ‘lady’ and ‘girl’ don’t belong in the workplace. Ladies and girls don’t manage a staff of over 100 people. Ladies and girls don’t fire people or head corporate takeover bids. Perhaps the solution that doesn’t carry a history of oppression or infantalisation (‘girl’) or the array of different meanings and connotations (‘lady’) is to find a whole new word for adult females.