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Laura L. Rubenstein: Who you calling a girl?

Laura Rubenstein

Laura L. Rubenstein

How many of your co-workers are girls? Unless you’re a family enterprise, operating a farm, running a camp or openly violating child labor laws, it’s unlikely that girls work at your company.

But how often are grown women called “girls” where you work? How many of you have said or heard, “My girl in accounting can help you,” “I’ll have my girl contact you to set up that meeting” or “I’ll get our marketing girl on it”?

It’s safe to assume that any female over the age of 18 is a woman. After all, at 18, a woman can get married without parental permission, vote, enlist in the military, enter into a legally binding contract, work full-time, serve on a jury, open a bank account, get a tattoo, buy cigarettes, sign a lease for an apartment, sky dive and buy a lottery ticket. Age 18 brings with it vast opportunities, responsibilities and respect which should be accompanied by age-appropriate language. Referring to a female contemporary or even a supervisor as a “girl” remains demeaning, irrespective of whether the speaker is male or female. Adult females are women and deserve to be called women.

In July 2018, reporter Melia Robinson wrote in Business Insider about the owners of Silicon Valley tech investing firm Urban Innovation Fund. The company had raised more than $22.5 million to invest in startups. The co-founders are Clara Brenner and Julie Lien, both 33 years old and clearly neither is a girl. However, they reported being referred to frequently as “girls” even by those who were seeking their venture capital money to fund business ideas. The reference came often from benign email greetings such as “Hey girls” or “Thanks, girls, for having us.” But Brenner said being called a “girl” “just grinds my gears.”

Consider the similar term “boy,” which was long ago eliminated from common employment parlance. Why? Referring to a man as “boy” is emasculating, connotes servitude and a gross imbalance of power, perhaps even bringing to mind an uglier time in American history when slavery was legal. Today, hearing “boy” used in the workplace makes most people wince. Society has shifted from using “boy” to using “guy.”

Today, men are typically referred to as “guys” such as “the IT guy,” the “marketing guy” or “the warehouse guy.” Still, guy is not the equivalent of girl.

Even referring to a female whose role in the workplace is perceived as less important on the hierarchy of high-paying jobs, such as an office assistant, billing clerk, waitress or housekeeper as the “girl” is unacceptable, and the repeated unwelcome use of such term can lead to legal claims of discrimination and harassment if accompanied by other factors.

The real working girls most of us see in our worlds are camp counselors, lifeguards and those employed with work permits signed by a parent or guardian. If used to refer to any other adult female, it’s simply insulting.

But what about the fact that women call other women “girls”? A group of adult female friends often refer to themselves as “the girls,” and a “girls’ night out” implies the company of adult females. Frequently, we hear women express camaraderie by addressing another woman as “girl” in the workplace, such as “You go girl!” or “Attagirl!” or “Girl Power!” Why is that OK?

Like all things, context matters. Given historical inequities, men should simply never use the word in the workplace and, unless in established friendships, women should refrain from using the word if they are in imbalanced work relationships.

The bottom line is words have meaning, literally and emotionally. Words frames how we think and can be evidence of an unconscious bias, implying that one gender is inferior to another. Believing that “girl” is equivalent to “man” assumes a power structure where men are superior to women.

Some people may need some consistent, gentle reminders. Substitute terms for “girl” include colleague, co-worker, team-member, workmate, associate, collaborator and fellow employee. Alternatively, women can be referred to by their appropriate business title, such as owner, funder, partner, executive, director, manager, supervisor, apprentice, or team-lead.

It’s well past time to elevate our language to ensure adult women are given the proper respect deserved and we use age-appropriate terms.

Laura L. Rubenstein is a partner in the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Wright, Constable & Skeen LLP in Baltimore. She can be reached at lrubenstein@wcslaw.com.