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Posted: August 12, 2009

Unite and use the term “woman”

A single word can make a huge difference

Theresa M. Szczurek

On an increasing number of occasions over the last few months, I have noticed men and women, from senior executives to entry-level team members, refer to women as “girls.”  You might say, “What does it matter?”

It matters a lot. 

Why?  I remember seeing a promo video of a man I thought was a top-notch speaker. He really impressed me until he slipped — referring in some way to the women involved in the business as girls.

He was so unaware of this as a mistake that he included that clip as a demonstration of his best material. Immediately, the red flag went up for me (and most likely for other professionals watching).  If he would say this on the record, what else would he say?  My respect and trust for him as a professional suffered; I could not hire or refer him.

In my coaching, I help clients understand that proper terminology is expected and is an important part of business performance. If you want to be on the top, talk in a manner you expect from someone already at the top. Using respectful terms such as “women” rather than “girls” makes you look good and allows you to show respect for others. 

Here are a few practical pointers:

Be aware
Do you remember the classic marketing formula, AIDA: Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action? In our communications efforts, we strive to move the market to be aware, have interest, desire our product/services, and take action to buy. 

Use AIDA to change your own communications patterns. Once you have awareness of your behavior, interest (or the intention to communicate in a way that will be inclusive) and desire to change, you will take appropriate action.

Old habits are hard to break
My suggestion is use terms that do not connote gender such as leader. A few examples:

  • I want to thank the leaders who helped with the registration table
  • The staff did a fabulous job
  • The committee members were so involved this year
  • How can we thank the students for their participation?

Surround yourself with people who use proper terminology
Encourage them to give you feedback. Find a coach, a MasterMind group, or co-workers you can ask to help you.

Give others feedback
People appreciate constructive feedback if it is shared with intent to help. Being silent only confuses — it makes it appear that you approve of this speech.

When does a girl become a woman?
If she has gone through puberty, she is a woman. When in doubt, call any female a woman. For sure, anyone older than high school is a woman. I was surprised and impressed recently at a Girl Scouts event — the event leaders called all the girls women.  This gave me a wake up call to refer to the members of the troop of 7th and 8th graders I lead as women. We all need reminders and help along the way.

Women and men unite… and get passionate about using the proper terminology.

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Theresa M. Szczurek, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Radish Systems, is a serial technology entrepreneur. The story of her last start-up, which sold for more than $40 million in less than six years, is included, along with her strategies for success, in the Amazon-bestseller Pursuit of Passionate Purpose: Success Strategies for a Rewarding Personal and Business Life. www.RadishSystems.com, www.radishsprouts.typepad.com and @TheresaSzczurek on twitter.

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Readers Respond

Very right. Using the right terminology makes a big difference. Becoming matured in the eyes of people helps a lot in a woman's perspective. But sometimes, people tend not to notice because they are not making a big fuss out of it. Different people have differing views. By thai girl on 2009 08 22
I agree and disagree. I think it is situation specific. In business settings the more formal woman/women seems appropriate. However in social settings, at age 32, my female friends look at me like I'm strange when I refer to them as women instead of girls. They seem to prefer to be called girls. Also a linguistics expert will agree that humans are lazy in language which results in shorter syllable words being used more often. Girls just seems quicker and less fuss for some people. By Denver Dan on 2009 08 12
I completely agree that the use of the term "girl" in the workplace tends to de-value the contribution of women in the workplace. It is quite possible that those that continue to use "girl" have gender bias tendencies. However, I disagree with calling anyone younger than 16 a woman/man. Over using or mis-applying a status only serves to diminish the value of the status. Refering to a teenager as a woman does not adequately value those women that have reached a level of maturity through experience and education. I also am involved in scouting and I refer to our Boy Scouts as boys and/or YOUNG men. I choose those words carefully both in relation to how they are behaving or how I expect them to behave. In an environment where they are playing a game they certainly are boys behaving like boys. In an environment where they are part of a ceremony they are young men expected to behave as young men. In a world of political correctness we often lose sight of how we utilize various titles and classifications to the detriment of those that have earned and/or deserve respect through appropriate application of status/titles. By David Fiore on 2009 08 12

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