I recently got into a disagreement with my mom after I called another adult female a "girl." My mom (and husband) argued that it's completely inappropriate to call any female over 13 years old a "girl." They suggested "young woman" is a more fitting term for teenagers and "woman" for adult females. We then debated in what contexts it's appropriate to call females "girls" versus "women." In the end, here is what we came up with.
According to Webster's Dictionary, a girl is "a female child from birth to adulthood" or "a young unmarried woman." The definition also includes what it calls a "somewhat offensive" definition: a single or married woman of any age. A "woman" is defined as "an adult female person."
Professionally: "woman" is appropriate
My mom and I agreed that "girl" is usually not the right term for the workplace. Females at work are not girls, they are adult female persons otherwise known as women. Calling an adult female a "girl" at work is demeaning and downgrades her contributions. It diminishes her both intellectually and professionally, suggesting that her work is equal to play. We agreed, as a sign of respect, all adult women in the workplace should be referred to as "women."
Some women, however, like being called girls. It's not uncommon to hear an adult woman say she is going out for a "girls night" with "the girls." We decided this is only acceptable in a social context.
Socially: "girl" is ok (sort of)
I personally do not call my friends "the girls," but this terminology seems to be very prevalent among 20-something females. While I don't use the term "the girls" to refer to friends, I do find myself saying "this girl from school" or "that girl over there," each time referring to an adult woman. In this casual context, it seems less insulting. Perhaps this is because social contexts don't require the level of formality and respect as the workplace does.
For some reason, however, calling anyone a girl still doesn’t seem quite right. My friends and I are not girls anymore, regardless if we are at work or out to dinner. And yet “women” often feels like something that other — older — people are. So when do females transition from "girls" to "women"?
There is not a clear indicator of adulthood in our society that would make the transition from "girl" to "woman" easily identifiable. Is it measured by age? By behavior? Milestones that traditionally signal adulthood (e.g., marriage, children) are occurring later and later for both men and women. This delay has blurred the line between child and adult, which may contribute to the increased usage of the term "girls" for adult women.
According to a report from the National Center on Education Statistics called "America's Youth: Transitions to Adulthood," the percentage of young females who have never married has increased from 50% to 77% since 1980 (see Figure 6). The report cites education and participation in the labor force as the main causes of this delay. If an adult woman has not married or had children, does this mean that it's more socially acceptable to call her a "girl"?
I am eager to hear other perspectives on this issue. Should acceptable terminology vary by context, or is an adult female always a "woman" and thus has the right to be called one? What milestones should signal the transition from a "girl" to a "woman"? When in doubt, I suggest erring on the side of respect and calling females who aren't clearly children either "young women" or "women."