A few years ago, I was at a Rotary Club meeting and introduced myself to a senior executive from a local firm. While we were talking, he referred to another woman as a girl. I gently explained to him that since the woman was over 18, she was no longer a girl.
Generally, when I do this, the individual will apologize and say they will work to be more aware of how they refer to women. Unfortunately, this person simply didn't get it and had no interest in changing his language. He loudly called out to a woman who was at the farthest part of the lunch line and asked her if she minded being called a girl. Slightly stunned by his yelling this question across the room, she said that she doesn't mind. He smugly told me that referring to women as girls was not an issue and women just don't mind.
But words in the workplace — and outside the workplace — do matter. Words set the tone for relationships, perceptions about individuals and office culture. Words signify respect or a lack of respect. They shut down female engagement at meetings and can have a negative impact on self-confidence, performance and chances for promotion.
Sexism in language is all around us. It affects women and men. Recognizing it and making a conscious effort to filter our choice of words is not about being politically correct. It is about recognizing in an affirmative way the value of each and every person to the success of the workplace.
Recently, I was thrilled to watch a video by Mayim Bialik, who is known for her starring role in the Big Bang Theory. She is also a PhD neuroscientist with a degree from UCLA. In the video entitled "Girl" vs. "Woman": Why Language Matters, she implores people to stop calling women girls because "the way we use words changes the way we frame things in our mind."
Bialik also says that "when we use words to describe adult women that are typically used to describe children, it changes the way we view women, even unconsciously, so that we don't equate them with adult men."
When my son Seth was born, my husband and I decided to raise him as a feminist. If you have a visceral reaction to the word feminist, take a deep breath. To me, feminism is simply supporting the rights of women to be equals in our society. Period. In teaching Seth language, it became apparent very quickly that language had not kept up with the changing times of the roles and significance of women in the workplace. Why is a woman referred to as chairman? Why do some construction signs still say Men at Work? After all, there are women construction workers as there are women police officers, firefighters, businesswomen and on and on. Why are some still using the word manpower instead of staffing — including the Times Free Press and The New York Times?
Honey, sweetheart and dear are all terms of endearment that should be reserved for friends, loved ones and relatives. In the workplace or other professional settings though, they can be heard as condescending, demeaning and disrespectful. And they can also lead to potential exposure to claims of sexual harassment. I have a standard line that I use when someone other than my husband uses these terms. I say that only my husband can call me by that term. The person quickly gets my message and apologizes.
Some of us grew up in a different time when sexist words were the norm and are not aware of their impact on others. Others who are younger are still learning this language from their families, teachers, and classmates. But isn't it time that we all work together to make the workplace a more comfortable place for every co-worker and employee? Will you be a leader in your organization in changing the tone?
Bea Lurie, who is opening a women's empowerment business in 2018, was president and CEO of Girls Inc. of Chattanooga for nine years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.