Susan Madsen: Is calling women ‘girls’ a problem?

Language can make women feel less mature, professional or responsible.

A year ago, I published an article in Forbes titled, “Why Calling Women ‘Girls’ Is a Bigger Deal Than You May Think.” Thousands of people around the world have read it, and it continues to circulate around social media when new people find it.

Since then, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the use of gendered language in homes, classrooms, workplaces, conferences and community settings in my home state of Utah, and I hear “girl” said in reference to adult women many times daily by men and women.

Calling grown women “girls” is most definitely a habit that needs to be broken. In fact, I was called out by someone 16 years ago for doing that very thing, and I spent the next year working on changing that habit. As we are working to help all people thrive, paying attention to our words matters.

Some readers may say, “Why is this a big deal? I hear women call themselves and others ‘girls’ all the time.” Well, it is a big deal, and this is why: It influences the way women think about themselves because it impacts women’s own aspirations, ambitions and self-confidence.

Experts have said that calling women “girls” can make them feel less mature than others, and it can be accompanied by treating an adult as if they were a child. So, when women are called girls, the subtle message is that they are not mature, professional or responsible.

One experimental leadership study found that those who were referred to as girls felt less confident, believed that others would view them as less prepared for leadership roles and perceived they had fewer leadership qualities. Another study found that when elementary school girls heard stories that used neutral pronouns instead of he or she, they reported greater increases in self-esteem.

The words themselves are subtle, and the ubiquitous use of “girls” erodes self-regard slowly; many women don’t understand why they may feel “less than.”

Precise word choices also influence the way people think about the women around them — including the confidence and trust they have in women’s capabilities — individually and as a group. Gendered language reinforces traditionally gendered styles, roles, behaviors and perceptions, which has been shown to disadvantage women. The bottom line is that the very word “girls” impacts the opportunities that may be offered to women.

If you think about it, we rarely hear a man referred to as a “boy,” but women of all ages are called “girls” by people in any setting. It is important to note that sometimes negative consequences of casually demeaning words range from subtle to overt — and from unintentional to intentional.

One example I would share — not sure if it was intentional or not — is that in a meeting of Utah senators a few years ago, two male senators and two female senators were asked to speak. The facilitator said, “Let’s have the senators speak first (referring to the two men) and then the girls.” The recently published series of “Sexist Comments and Responses” by the Utah Women & Leadership Project provides abundant examples.

My rule of thumb is this: When there is a situation where males are called “boys,” then it may also be fine to call females “girls.” And, just so you know, girls and boys, gals and guys and women and men are pairs that are aligned — not guys and girls.

Using the word “girl” for adult women is most likely a habit for most of us, but it is sexist and can negatively impact the women around us. With a little effort, we can change our habits regarding using words that can be taken by someone as sexist or disrespectful. Creating spaces where everyone feels like they belong can lift all of us in ways that help us better contribute to our homes, churches, schools, workplaces and beyond.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University