Monday, September 8, 2014

The "G-Word"

As I was in the middle of checking a calculation at work today, my phone rang and when I picked it up a woman on the other end said, "Hey girl!"

Did she really just say "hey girl"? I paused, at a complete loss for how to respond. Thankfully, she quickly filled the silence with technical questions and it was back to normal work. But my momentary discomfort reminded me of an incident that had happened years earlier.

In college I was on the executive board of an organization for women in technology that provided a professional and personal support network. I loved the organization, and always looked forward to crafting funny and welcoming emails to go out to our members about the upcoming events we had planned.

One day, my adviser emailed me asking that I come to her office- and the tone sounded more serious than normal. I sat down tentatively, and she took in a deep breath.

"Vanessa, we need to talk about your use of the 'g-word'," she said very carefully.

"Excuse me?" I asked, completely confused.

"The 'g-word'. You've been using the word 'girl' a lot in your emails and I've been getting complaints from some of the members that it's offensive and demeaning. I know you wouldn't intend to offend anyone, but you should probably choose another word."

I was honestly pretty shocked; I hadn't intended to offend anyone. I just wanted to make it sound welcoming and fun.While 'girl' can refer to a child, it can also just refer to a young woman, or a woman of any age. When starting an email, "Hey women!" sounded too formal and awkward, "Hey ladies!" sounded too sassy, and "Hey gals!" sounded like we are from the 1950's. I mean, 'girls night out' isn't demeaning, it just sounds like fun. How else was I supposed to address a group of women? How could a word that I always associated with fun be offending people?

What place would ever advertise a "women's night out"? It just sounds wrong.
I followed my adviser's advice (because she seemed to always be right about these things, even if I couldn't explain it), but it wasn't until I graduated that I began to truly understand why anyone would find this word off putting.

The only time I heard the word 'girl' at work in the first couple of years was dripping in venom. Men who were annoyed with me (or the rare other woman) would say things like, "Tell that girl that I don't think I should have to do that" or "That girl is being unreasonable". The passive aggressive vendor I mentioned in the email blog post is the perfect example of the type of person who enjoyed using the g-word. It was almost like they had done a one for one word replacement with 'bitch', and thought they'd get away with it since 'girl' wasn't technically a bad word.

I suppose they could have used 'woman', 'lady', 'person', 'human', 'engineer', 'genius', or really any word, and you would have been able to hear the same poison and disgust in their tone. But the perpetrators always chose seemed to choose 'girl', perhaps because it had the bonus implication of being young, inexperienced, and immature. As a side note, I always found that ironic because I think that debasing yourself by insulting people at work is rather childish.

That's how I ended up today, answering a phone and feeling momentarily shocked and defensive at a word I used to associate with fun social events. For the first time I can remember in my professional career it was meant in a nice way, so my defensiveness was unnecessary. But I couldn't help but wonder how a seemingly benign word had become such a weapon in the workplace.

I know that there is a pretty awesome, similarly themed P&G commercial about reclaiming the phrase "like a girl", although it mostly has to do with performing physical activities "like a girl". I think it's important to take that one step further; being young woman has nothing to do with competence physically or intellectually. In the workplace, I have been told that the word 'girl' is never appropriate. Admittedly, when it is used by the older generations, it almost always seems to be used in the form of an insult. But perhaps by banning the word we are unintentionally admitting that being a young female is somehow a bad thing.

I am a girl, even though I am not a child. My gender and my age have nothing to do with the quality of my work. Maybe the solution isn't discouraging people from using the word "girl" altogether (and therefore giving it even more power when used negatively), but using it more often in a positive context reclaiming the word and removing the negative stereotypes. What do you think?




  1. I found using "girl" very friendly and comforting, especially as I am getting old. I can hardly see anything offensive in it. but I wasn't born and grew up in this country, so it may trigger some hidden meaning that I didn't know. I also think when it used among close friends it would be appreciated more than using among strangers or acquaintances.
    I also heard that "bitch" is not really an offensive work any more. Well, what a world!

  2. Great post. Political correctness has made workplace interactions unnecessarily complicated. Unfortunately, in most professions, women are damned if they do and damned if they don't...we're bitches (or sneeringly called girls) if we're assertive, whereas a man with those qualities is simply considered aggressive and strong. It's the old double standard. As far as the term "girl," I am not personally offended by it. In fact, I will use "Hi girls!" to greet a group of male doctors. All in good fun.

  3. I completely get this. This post was validating for me. I always feel like there are many undertones or attempts at being subtly degrading, I order to keep people at lower levels. "Girl" seems to be one of the,. "Young lady" rubs me the wrong way too. However, I do enjoy using girl with my friends.

    1. I'm so glad you can relate! I agree with you on "young lady", I don't know if I've ever really heard that used in a non-sarcastic manner. The part I think is the most challenging about "girl" is that we embrace it outside of work but at work it's used as a weapon in the workplace. It makes it hard to pinpoint what's insulting without sounding like you are "overreacting".

  4. Quite an interesting article Vanessa. I don't see anything wrong with being called a girl unless the tone was as you say poisonous, then I'd find it offensive but other than that the g-word is only a word.

  5. I just found your blog, and as a 25-year old female electrical engineer....I have to say this is amazing and SO on point with everything I feel on a day to day basis! I thought I was the only one who had these thoughts haha. I especially loved the shoe choice dilemma, hiding tampons in the bathroom, and discussion of secretary skills posts.

    1. I'm so glad you found us and can relate! Sometimes it's good to know we're all in it together even when there isn't a woman in sight. :)

  6. Lolzz... Girl is awesome word... and i love it...


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