If 'girls' is sexist, we need a new term to describe women in the workplace

How do you describe a group of professional women? [Photo: Kaboompics // Karolina via Pexels]
How do you describe a group of professional women? [Photo: Kaboompics // Karolina via Pexels]

There’s a sexism row currently rumbling over on Twitter. Sir Roger Gale MP has inadvertently whipped up the Internet into a frenzy by referring to female staff in his office as ‘girls’.

He made the controversial comment while speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme about hiring family members and lit the spark to start a social media scurry.

While some accused the comment of being misogynistic others said it was like harking back to the 1950s, and one woman vented her fury so passionately she claimed to have shouted herself hoarse.

“Sir Roger Gale is talking about the girls in his office – is he employing child labour?!,” one man tweeted.

“Sir Roger Gale MP, I don’t care if you employ your well qualified wife but calling your office staff ‘girls’ is downright offensive,” a woman vented.

“Regarding Sir Roger Gale, MP on @BBCr4today talking about his wife & “the girls” in his office: the 1950s called & they miss you,” another user wrote.

It seems people are particularly upset by the ‘girls’ comment because it was used to describe women in the workplace. Because using a term effectively used to describe children to label professional women could be seen as undermining and patronising. And though some might say women are being overly sensitive about it, in a world where a substantial pay gap and glass ceilings still exist the language used in the workplace matters. Would Roger Gale have referred to a similar group of senior male employees as ‘boys?’

It’s not the first time the BBC has been embroiled in a ‘girl’-related controversy. Back in 2014, they chose to edit the word out of one of their programmes.

In the documentary, about the Commonwealth Games, called ‘The Queen’s Baton Relay’, presenter Mark Beaumont was apparently a little surprised when he was defeated by judo champion Cynthia Rahming (we’re not sure why he was taken aback, she is a champion after all but anyway). During the first showing of the programme Beaumont was heard saying: “I am not sure I can live that down – being beaten by a 19-year-old girl.” But when the show was repeated, the word ‘girl’ had been removed.

Though Cynthia herself said she didn’t find the word sexist and wasn’t in the slightest bit offended by it, a spokeswoman for the BBC revealed that they had taken out the word ‘girl’ in case it caused offence. They were likely concerned that people might think the BBC believed being a woman or a girl makes you less able than a man.

Is the term 'girls' sexist? [Photo: Tim Gouw via Pexels]
Is the term ‘girls’ sexist? [Photo: Tim Gouw via Pexels]

So was the BBC right to be cautious? And are the Twitterati right to be offended by professional women being referred to as ‘girls’?

Those defending Roger Gale’s gaff highlight the fact that his female staff refer to themselves as ‘girls’, but you could argue that is an altogether different scenario. Women do call other women girls all the time, but it’s more often than not said as a light-hearted reference to solidarity. Women are very aware they’re women.

What it boils down to is the fact that using the word ‘girl’ is all about context. ‘Girl’ becomes somewhat derogatory when used to suggest women are in any way inferior to men. So “throwing like a girl”, “crying like a girl” and a male boss saying “well done girls” to professional women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and upwards are all out. But Ryan Gosling’s ‘hey girl’, girls nights out and girl power are all in.

But in the professional context what’s the alternative? Do we need another term to describe a group of women in the workplace?

In recent years ‘guys’ has seemed to become a more gender neutral, inclusive definition for a group of mixed male and females. But a recent #WordsAtWork campaign launched by the Australian Diversity Council warned against using ‘guys’ or ‘girls’ in the workplace, in case offence was taken. For some, it seems, still view ‘guys’ as a predominately ‘male’ word.

David Morrison, who chaired the council, said: “Guys is … used thoughtlessly. I have removed it from my lexicon. Many workplace emails start with the phrase ‘hi guys’. But it is masculine. There might be people who go ‘that’s what I say all the time and I don’t mean it to be in any way disrespectful’, but it’s not what you intend, it’s how you’re listened to.”

What about Ladies? Though the word ‘lady’ used to stand for the opposite of ‘lord’, now, though widely accepted as a euphemism for woman, there are associations that conjure up images of well-to do women in twinsets and pearls and ‘proper’ behaviour. Though it seems to have had something of a reclamation of late, its previous associations mean it’s up there with ‘girls’ in terms of not accurately describing what it’s trying to.

So, it seems there’s no quick fix solution for generically referring to a group of women in the workplace. But of course, definitions and connotations attached to words do change over time. And while ‘girls’ might be seen as offensive now, in years to come it might be viewed with altogether more positive associations.

In the mean time if girls, guys and ladies are all out, ‘folks’ it is. That ok people?

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