Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Women" versus "girls": what's appropriate?

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."


Heather said...

Thanks for the post, I was just having this conversation the other day!

I think the oddity of using "girl" becomes apparent in the fact that you wouldn't refer to a male over 18 as a "boy." No one ever says that... so why is it accepted to say girl for a female over 18?

After the conversation, I concluded that, I'm not sure how much language actually reflects bias in the speaker. So, I wouldn't make it a crusade to make sure I was called a woman.

Patricija said...

I think it is definitely about context. Completely agree that it is NEVER acceptable at work or work-like settings.

I think the somewhat appropriate social context you are referring to utilizes an alternative definition of the term girl. Here, girl signifies that a person is someone you know more personally or with whom you have a social relationship. We all know the ever popular expression, "hey giiiiirrrl." Here the term is more analogous to the male term "dude" or "bro." I think if the term comes out of a place of shared social comfort and an underlining level of respect, then it is a symbol that we are indeed just grown up kids who play.

Now things get even more muddled when you add lady, mam, Ms. Miss, and Mrs. into the mix. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around all those identifiers. Ultimately, what I think what comes out of this dialogue is the importance of language and how much words matter. I think this is particularly true of people who have experienced (and continue to experience!) societal oppression. Men hold a level of power and status that can withstand damaging language. Women simply do not enjoy such privilege. This harsh reality is what makes your mother and husband hesitant about using loaded language that can negatively affect women's plight of equality.

KRB said...

Very interesting. I agree that the appropriateness of referring to a female as a "girl" as opposed to a "woman" depends on the context.

"Lady" is similarly interesting. When a friend says, "hey lady," I think nothing of it. But, in a work situation I find it inappropriate and demeaning. Especially if the woman is not a young woman (as I have observed in a work environment previously).

Sam said...

“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.”

My hypothesis about this is that our language has no female equivalent for “guy.” “Guy” is the word that fills the void between “boy” and “man.” The closest female equivalent is “gal,” but this has never become mainstream, and still – at least to my ear – sounds potentially offensive in the wrong context. Perhaps this is due to the fact that any slang term for a woman will be filled with our society’s negative view of women. I personally try and use the term “woman” as often as possible when I refer to my peers. It always feels a little weird, though.

Another phrase that drives me crazy is “you guys.” “You guys” has filled the void in English where the second person plural pronoun should be. “You all” would be better, but it has become associated with rural (and Southern) culture, and hence “uneducated.”

However, if a group is all women – and only then – “you guys” is often replaced with some form of “you ladies.” In other words, it’s okay to lump in women with men, but not men with women. For example, when I’m the only guy in a group, it’s often some form of “ladies..and Sam.” This seems to presume that I would be offended if someone lumped me in with the ladyfolk, which in turn perpetuates an assumption of female inferiority.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for this post. I had this exact same conversation with my roommate earlier this semester. She noticed that I refer to our classmates as "women," while she refers to them as "girls." I know it can feel a little awkward at times referring to our peers as women, but I feel it's very important. In law school we are not only friends, but colleagues. I think it's important for us to view each other as professionals (or at least soon to be professionals), and as such we have earned the term women. I convinced my roommate to try to start using women too when it felt right.

"Girl" can be okay when used between friends, like the aforementioned "hey girl." But I try not to use it when referencing someone (i.e. "that woman in our class").

Sam makes a good point that I have also noticed: there is no female equivalent to "guy." I think males in their 20s generally are referred to as "guys" rather than "men." It seems more age-appropriate. While I refer to friends as lady sometimes, such as "hey lady", it seems a little weird to say that "lady in my class" because in that context it sounds like a term for an "old lady."

I suppose it's a bit like the miss v. ma'am debate. Guys just get mr. at all times, while we are defined by age or marriage, or really whatever determining factor the Starbucks barista chooses. Personally I get sooo annoyed when someone calls me ma'am. I think the term is ugly when compared with its root, madam. But I digress...I have a lot to say on this topic.

tzey said...

I am a big fan of proper word usage. In college is was involved in some progressive circles where using guys to refer to a roomful of people was practically sacriligous and would result in a little bit of group shamming.

I tend to refer to myself as a woman not a girl. But i find that sometimes when other people call me woman it bothers me. Only when i feels that its used in a slightly possessive tone. Now maybe discussing tone is too out there. But it really bothers me when I hear "woman" with a possessive twitch to it.

Attisaurus said...

Even more crucial than context to the question of "girl" or "woman" is the underlying intent of the speaker. The same word spoken by a close friend, versus a boss, versus a professor, versus your mom inevitably carries different social meaning and consequences.

I routinely refer to all my male and female and other friends as "girllll" (yes, with the drawl), "girllllfaren," "bro/dude-ski," and "brotato." In turn, they call me the same, and I don't think any of us really questions this word choice because we are close friends and there is NO question of underlying intent
(admittedly also because we are just regurgitating ryan gosling memes or Mad TV tropes to each other, constantly).

Language is paramount - how we navigate social spaces and demand to be treated by others. However, I do wonder if this is a case of pick-your-battles-carefully. Personally, I prefer to be spoken to colloquially (especially at work, when I want to build interpersonal rapport and mentorship opportunities)and find no distaste in being called anything from "ma'am" to "bitch" (in an ironic joking manner).

Also, I urge us all to give other people the benefit of the doubt with this usage. I have found that since deciding to view these everyday interactions with the default assumption that no one is actively trying to belittle, infantilize,or disrespect me - I am more engaged with the life around me, not to mention personally happy and liberated without that chip on my shoulder. So whatever you take away from this post/these comments, I urge that we spare ourselves the mental anguish of this deciphering job, and either confront and ask, or assume the best.

Sophie said...

The idea of women versus girls was something that was drilled into my head in college. In my sorority, we were taught never to call fellow sisters (or other young ladies for that matter) girls. But rather, we were supposed to use the terms “young ladies” or “women.” Our International Office went so far as to consider the use of the term “girls” as a form of hazing – we could get in serious trouble if someone went and said we were saying girls instead of the more appropriate terms. It was interesting to read the other comments and the strong feelings individuals have with being called a woman (versus girl or versus lady). I still do sometimes slip and use the term girl but overall, I agree with the idea that the context of the word is absolutely crucial and that the terms can have various social meanings and consequences.