Why am I still a girl when all the boys have grown up?

one explanation for the ongoing use of ‘girls’ is that it is an example of lingering sexism from the time that women (re) entered the workforce.

Art by Caitlin O'Keefe White

Girl /gɜl/

noun 1.  a female child

Last week an older male colleague referred to me and another young woman as ‘girls’ in the same sentence that he referred to a male colleague, my age, by his name. Of course, I’ve been called a girl countless times before, but there was something about that moment in particular that made me feel smaller than usual, like the distance between myself and my older colleague was the same distance you’d have between a teacher and a school child. And I questioned, why am I still a girl when my male colleague was allowed to grow up? 

It isn’t controversial that referring to adult women as ‘girls’ in the workplace is harmful to women. USyd Professor Rae Cooper has found that as people don’t refer to men as “boys” in the same way women are called “girls”, the term functions to differentiate women from their male colleagues in a way that is infantilising and demeaning. 

As girl is a term attached to childhood, when applied to adult women in the workplace, it implies that women are not mature, professional, or responsible, writes Susan Madsen. Women who are referred to as “girls”, instead of women, are both less confident in themselves and more likely to believe that others view them as less suitable for leadership positions.

One explanation for the ongoing use of “girls” is that it is a product of lingering sexism from the time that women (re)entered the workforce. Women working in the early twentieth century were largely only able to work in areas associated with features of domestic labour or in deferential positions in other industries, such as secretaries. 

As many positions were deferential in nature, and most women in the workforce were unmarried young women, to be a working “girl” was all but the norm. Indeed, the term “working girl” which was traditionally used only for sex workers, was expanded to describe working women generally. 

Beyond this, the growth of girlboss feminism, popularised by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso in 2014 in her autobiography, entitled #Girlboss, encouraged the use of “girl” as a term for adult women in the workplace.  Girlboss feminism is rooted in a capitalist ideology as it largely ignores structural inequality, focusing instead on individualist empowerment. It heralds women who, through hard work and hustle, succeed in a ‘man’s world’.  The movement has since been widely criticised as neoliberal, white-centric and performative, and in online spaces, #girlboss survives only as an insult. 

In addition to all of this, girlboss feminists proudly labelled themselves as GIRLbosses, or even just girls, in the workplace. Girlbosses could call themselves girls because their ideology ignored the existence of systemic sexism, after all, a girlboss could just hustle herself out of not being taken seriously—right? 

Girlboss feminism was built on the capitalist fantasy that “hard work pays off” and encouraged women to be bossy and “hustle” to reach success. However, Nasty Gal and Amoruso’s success was reliant on deeply exploitative labor practices and in 2016, the company filed for bankruptcy, putting speculation on the truth of the girlboss ethos. Colloquially, “girlboss” now refers to a woman who ascertains success at the expense of others. 

While choice feminists strove to redefine “girl” according to their own metrics, as the integrity of the movement dissolved, it left in its wake yet another negative association attached to being a “girl” in the workplace. 

While the linguistic pair for girls is boys, young men in the workplace likely find themselves called “guys” as the informal alternative to men. Although historically, “guys” has been masculine, women have been using “guys” since the middle of the 20th century so there is no reason the word cannot evolve into gender neutrality. 

Alternatively, “girls” is predominantly used in the plural, and is an unnecessary qualifier that could be dropped all together or substituted for a gender-neutral pronoun: “how are you girls” becomes “how are you”, “could you work with the girls on that task” becomes “could you work with them on that task.” 

To make matters simple, if you’re not in a situation where you’d call a man a boy, then that woman isn’t a girl.

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