A Girl or a Woman? - A Guide To The Surprisingly Tricky Terrain of Female Labels


When is a girl no more a girl and suddenly a woman? That's a serious question because it's a sensitive point for many. 

I've made the mistake, and I definitely should know better, of getting into this issue on social media threads online. I didn't expect that people would hold such intense feelings and positions on the issue, as I had used girl and woman interchangeably for years, and I'm nearly 48! How naive of me. Reading through the thread, I got it. Clearly many women would find being referred to as a "girl" diminishing. A "girl" is a child after all, not an adult, and no woman wants to be treated like a child. 

I don't remember the exact age that my peers and I moved from exclusively referring to ourselves as girls and to adopting "woman" in self-reference. It was probably mid-twenties. There was no big ceremony, no delineation event. Perhaps this is why it was so easy to accommodate the two labels for so long. I still have "girl-friends". We still go out for a "girls night" and we even joke about all adopting "Golden Girls" style living arrangements in our twilight years.

Does it matter? 

I feel a little uncomfortable in saying "yes" in answer to that. Here's why I must however. Politically we are still in a battle as women, a very serious battle for self-determination. Our right to make decisions about our own bodies and lives is compromised in many states and under threat in many more. The government at both the state and federal level is dominated by conservative men who are afraid of female power. They are much more comfortable with an outmoded view of the world where women's expectations for fulfillment and happiness are bound up in supporting a man and having a traditional marriage. That traditional position obviously made her less financially secure or, worse, wholly dependent on her spouse. As women become more and more independent financially (and we still have a very long way to go here) they are pulling firmly away from limiting past roles and looking to re-invent both relationship and family structures so that they may work better for both parties.

So why is female power so scary? Maybe because it's never been seen before? Is it the fear of the unknown? Maybe these conservative men are also hoping that we haven't realized something pretty significant which is that, technically speaking, men are redundant. Think about it a moment. Women are the creators and we can literally continue life on this planet without men. IVF technology is very well established. We can do just about any job a man can do. I'm searching to think of one a man can do that a woman can't....Sperm Donor comes to mind but....nothing else really. Now, if you're a normal guy, who isn't a sexist, nothing I just said is going to bother you. Why should it? You meet a woman as an equal, cherish and respect difference and basically want the same out of life that other people do - to find work with purpose that pays well enough to support you, to find love with someone who loves you right back, and to explore this world and every ounce of potential you have along the way. 

A woman's right to choose is so politicized for no other reason than it serves the purpose of subjugating women. If you can't choose if and when to reproduce, you are enslaved by that lack of choice and it will directly impact your ability to fully access your power. So, when women are being treated politically as children, who shouldn't be trusted or allowed to make decisions about their own bodies for themselves, "girl" is a label I now think twice about.  

So here's where I've landed on the Girl vs. Woman issue, for what it's worth. If someone refers to a grown woman as a girl, and the intention or effect of that is to diminish that woman in some way, then that is clearly unacceptable. It is sexist. Whether it is consciously or unconsciously done is not relevant. Intent is not relevant. It is just unacceptable. Any male politician, business manager, public office holder, or any man holding any position of authority, who uses "girl" to refer to any grown woman is belittling her and needs to stop.

Don't willfully misunderstand me though. You call yourself whatever you want. I'm not advocating that we need to change how we refer to your friends. If your partner refers to you as his/her "girl" that's not what I'm talking about. That's a different relationship altogether. There's implicit or explicit permission involved there. So, for what it's worth, here's my guide on the usage of Girl vs Woman. 

If you're a Man - 

Sorry guys but you're on trickier ground! 

If it's a professional work environment, regardless of how well you get on with this "female of the species", you refer to her as a woman. There are just no exceptions. 

The advantages of this approach are:-

1. You're never going to insult her 

2. You're never going to blur the lines of professionalism or be at risk of unconsciously undermining your colleague/co-worker/subordinate

My first boss when I worked in IT was a man. He had years of experience, a sparkly MBA from a great school, and had about 10 years on me. We went to lots of meetings together and hosted lots of prospective clients together. I learnt an enormous amount from him not least of which was the ideal way to treat a less senior, young, female co-worker.

One simple act represented this perfectly. We were presenting to the French Telecom Company and it was a breakfast meeting. The coffee arrived to the room. We were just at that stage of early introductions and, without a second thought, he stepped in and started pouring everyone's coffee and passing around breakfast pastries. A small act? Yes. Do I remember it 20 years later? Obviously. Why? Because that act sent a clear message to everyone in the room, that I was not a "Girl" I was a Professional Woman and not there to warm a seat or pour the coffee. If this senior man was prepared to act as the "barista" I clearly had a major role in the room. 

Language matters in context. Actions matter too. It isn't enough to get your labels correct if you fall down on the follow through. My former boss knew how to do both. It was a privilege to work for him and with him. The years during which I had the benefit of his mentorship, he was a young father. He has two full grown daughters today. Lucky women!

Can you ever call her a Girl? Yes, of course! In a social context where you know a group of women well and they self-refer as girls, it may be totally acceptable to call them individually or separately "girl" or "girls". 

If she's your Girl-friend it goes without saying, I hope, that anything you consensually decide to call each other is nobody's business but your own!

But generally, it would be wise to just call anyone over the age of 18 or definitely by 21, a woman or even a lady. It's respectful and anyone who would resent being referred to as a woman or a lady...well I would just say that's their issue. It would be clear to any objective party that respect was intended. 

If you're a Woman

Clearly you have more wiggle room than a man here when it comes to navigating these labels but that doesn't mean it's plain sailing. 

I would be slow to call any female over the age of 18, who I didn't know, anything but a woman. To be honest if I were addressing any group where the majority were 18+ I would go for "ladies". 

Intimacy is the key determinant of the appropriate label

Let's face it, it really depends on that intimate language that you share with a group of friends. Some women refer to their "girl gang" some are "ladies who lunch/brunch/cocktail". The key is that they are an intimate group with implicitly agreed norms. 

If you're not part of the group? Don't use the group language. Simple. 

In conclusion, always always always err on the side of respect. We all appreciate when we are treated respectfully. Particularly if you in a position of authority over a woman, and it's a professional setting, think of yourself as her ally. Take the example of my male boss from 20+ years ago. Wouldn't you like to have that legacy -the legacy of ally/respectful co-worker?

At PEBBLE + ROSE we say that "Choices Change Lives". That doesn't just apply to the products we sell to fund charitable projects for women. It applies in all of our daily lives and in how we interact with each other. It may very well apply to how you decide to refer to a woman in a particular setting. Isn't it worth taking a moment to pause for thought?

Related Articles: 

How Difficult Is It To Say, I'm a Feminist?

About the Author

Eimear Zone PEBBLE + ROSE

Eimear Zone is an entrepreneur and co-founder of feminist brand and social enterprise, PEBBLE + ROSE. She writes on feminism, entrepreneurship, and mindset management. She can be contacted at eimearz@pebbleandrose.com and IG @emtczone


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