Spotlight effect: the tendency to observe more of a given phenomenon once you start looking for it. This is what happened once I started paying attention when women were referred to as children. It is shockingly common, so common that I had to start asking myself why – why are we, as a society, so much more comfortable saying “girls” than “women”? More importantly, what are the effects of referring to women as girls?
I don’t know when exactly I started paying attention to the use of the word “girls”. I do know that I noticed it acutely when I ended up working with a new principal at a school I was teaching at who referred to all of the female staff who were under 50 or so as girls. He tended to use it when he didn’t want to deal with our issues or needs, or to refer to us as a group when he hoped we’d solve something “girl-related” (i.e. anything with emotional content). Thankfully, he was receptive to feedback and worked on breaking the habit – and when he did, what followed was more equitable treatment of the staff at our school. Later, I went to work in the teacher’s association office and quickly developed a reputation for being the one who would give our president a (metaphorical) kick to the (metaphorical) shins every time he referred to the women in the office as girls. For him, it was all of the women in the office, even the one who is a grandmother. In this instance, recognizing how much of a problem it was, he sought help to break the habit. He worked on it and made progress and again, the results were great. He began to take my input more seriously, to the point where he would even seek it out, and I heard similar things from other women we worked with.
Both of those men were keen to seek to change once they had the habit brought to their attention. I admit, given that both of them are of an older generation, my tendency was to give them a pass once they committed to changing it and I dropped it. But after those experiences, I started hearing and seeing it everywhere, and not just among older men, but everywhere, including out of the mouths of Gen X-ers and my fellow Millennials, groups who’d I’d have assumed would know better. This fall, I started a full time Master’s program, one where most of the students will go on to work in government and public service. And they refer to women as girls. One or two of our profs have done it, the men in the program do it, and I’m “the bully” for calling them on it (setting aside that the only person I really actively police on this is someone who has directly asked me to). For asserting the right to not be infantilized on the basis of my gender, I’ve been told I’m intimidating. And of course, I’ve been told time and time again through all of this that it can’t really be a problem because “it’s not intended as disrespectful” and because “girls” (by which they mean women) “do it all the time.”
If we step back and take a critical look at these situations, it becomes painfully obvious. Tell me, what’s more intimidating, having someone ask you not to use a particular word to refer to them, or trying to live up to high academic and professional standards while facing constant assertions, and behaviour that reinforces those assertions, that you are a child – which is to say, not reasonable, competent, capable, trustworthy, nor knowledgeable, with no valid experience to bring to bear? Never mind that I’m one of the oldest students in the program, with considerable professional experience in my field. I object to this language and resultant treatment being wielded against all of the women in my classes, and in my society at large. Intent is not magic protection against oppressive behaviour, and unsurprisingly, the men in my classes who are most likely to call women girls are also the most likely to interrupt them, treat them dismissively, and take up way more that their share of space in class – talking forever, dominating questions/response sessions in class, and even taking up a disproportionate amount of the physical space, such as sitting two to a table while the women squeeze three or four in. Any rudimentary glance toward semiotics should be sufficient to make clear that the language we use does indeed affect our thinking and thus our world. How, in a world that systematically devalues girls (see, for instance, any Will Ferrell film ever), can we possibly expect equitable treatment for adult females when we ceaselessly call them children?
In response to the discussion about women also calling women girls, the first thing usually said is pretty obvious: really? It can be different when a word is used by you instead of against you? It can be different when people within a group use a word than when people outside that group do it? (The answer on all aspects is of course it can!) Building from there, one would of course observe that women are socialized in patriarchy as much as men are, so we too are trained to see ourselves and other women as less competent and more child-like, and that gets reflected in our use of language. Beyond that, I have also observed that women are less likely to call women girls in professional and academic contexts, and more so in social contexts. When it’s used by women in a social context, I think it can potentially even be celebratory, indicating a sloughing off of responsibility and being playful – think girls’ night out. Even in that context though, use of the term girls by men underscores the vulnerability of those women, denies their agency, and frankly, to my ears, takes on a predatory ring.
Calling women girls means equating them to a group of people who are not people in the eyes of the law. Children are people who cannot enter into legal contracts or make binding decisions about matters of their health, financial situations, and so on. It ensconces women firmly in an object position, denying agency or autonomy. These attitudes lead to the endurance of notions of women as property, justification of violence against us, and legislative control over our bodies and health. Yet I’ve seen even men who recognize this and actively take on changing how they refer to women have struggled with what to say instead of girls. I’ve seen them try on “gals”, “ladies”, “dames”, “females”, and awkwardly try to wrap their lips around the word “women”. Even I have to muster some level of conscious deliberateness to call women “women”. I am more likely, especially when I’m in the middle of things and not wanting to have to stop for a lengthy gender and language discussion, to avoid gendered terms altogether (returning to a male default such as “guys” is, of course, not an option – and to those who argue it is comparable to girls, please note, it is not what we call males in their infancy).
Somehow, just calling women women feels like a political act in and of itself. It implies capability and agency. It is potentially revolutionary, and we are socialized to feel that it’s not normal or comfortable. That’s why I’m embracing it. I’m working on using it as much as possible because in doing so, I am not only changing the way I think, I’m changing the world around me. I hope you’ll join in.
– Sasha Wiley