No "Girls" Allowed
I have had the pleasure of working in all-female teams a few times throughout my professional career. During one of those experiences, I worked with a woman who would constantly say, "Hello, Girls!", every time we sat in a meeting together. Or, when she would volunteer us to do something, she would say, "The girls and I will do it.". Those words were like nails on a chalkboard to me and I often dreamed of screaming, "Stop. Don't say that!". It wasn't because she wasn't polite, but rather because she was using a term that implied she was working with a bunch of middle schoolers. And she was only five years older than us.
The issue: What you say in the workplace does matter. What you call someone in front of other colleagues will have an impact. Using diminutive terms, especially in the workplace, undermines the authority of the person in question. If we don't want men to treat women like little girls, belittle us in the workplace, or only offer us roles they do not want to fulfil (i.e. note taker), then we have to have to stop referring to ourselves in terms that make it seem like we can't hang with the big boys...and you should not put up with those terms from men either.
How to handle:
1. Be direct
In this particular example, I gave the woman feedback directly. More often than not she talked about the "girls" in front of upper management. Even though most of us women hold Master's Degrees, I calmly explained to her how incompetent we, as a team, can come across when she uses terms like that. This does not impart confidence to Management that we should be leading projects, taking on leadership roles, or even spearheading certain tasks.
When addressing a male colleague, even a boss, I would encourage you to approach them in a similar fashion. You will find that most individuals have never thought of the repercussions of using terms, such as "girls" or "boys". Bringing it to their attention and providing examples of other terms to use (see point 2), is typically a great step in helping them see how they can be a better colleague.
2. Change your ways
When referring to a group of females, you can start replacing terms like "girls" with "ladies" or "women". Just the same, when referring to a group of males, you should not be using the term "boys", but rather "guys", "gentlemen", etc.
Rule of thumb here: If you wouldn't want the term used on yourself, don't use it for others.
3. You are making an impact
The way we speak, the tones we use, the words we choose - they all impact peoples' perceptions of us (and others!). If you work with your "little brother" and continuously use that term to refer to him in the workplace, you will start to shape the perception of others that this person is less capable and belongs in a more junior role. This could mean they are offered less opportunities to take on leadership activities, thus directly impacting the trajectory of their career. Why? No matter how capable they prove themselves to be, you are undermining any authority that the person does have by belittling them.
Words shape our thinking. If we are working towards a society that truly embraces differences then we need to make sure the language we are using positively impacts those around us. Like I said, what you say in the workplace does matter, but it's up to you to make a conscious effort to lift others up instead of placing them beneath you. If we want to bring about change, then we need to start right here: with ourselves.
Let's say, No girls allowed! in the workplace. We will put our Lady Britches on and go make a difference, as women!
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