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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


Updated: Mar 19, 2019

In 2017, I set myself the goal of correcting the biased language I found myself using almost every day.

Coming out of my early twenties, I started to notice I was referring to my peers or women a few years younger than me as ‘girls’.

It sounded a bit weird.

Because, really, they weren’t girls. They were women. Young women, but definitely not girls.

Quick guide for age labels relating to people who identify as girls / women: 0-13 year-olds are girls, 13-17 year-olds are teenage girls (or, just teenagers), 18+ year-olds are women (or, just people!).

Luckily, at this stage, I had plenty of opportunity to practice un-learning the infantilisation of women that is so subtly, but deeply, ingrained in our vocabulary. I was finishing my PhD, teaching undergraduate engineering courses, and handing over my Executive Directorship of Fifty50 – surrounded by young women and men where I could better model appropriate language and tackle this manifestation of unconscious bias.

At first, calling these people ‘women’ sounded almost as weird as calling them girls (as combating unconscious bias is often quite uncomfortable!).

I only needed to think about it in a different way, and then it became really easy to do: I realised we call women ‘girls’ to remove any power or authority they may have, and yet we call men ‘boys’ to remove any responsibility they have over their actions (just look at any front-page news story of footballers behaving badly: ‘the boys’). As Mayim Balik points out in her “Girls” v “Women”: Why language matters video, how we speak to and about people shapes our perceptions and how we see the world more broadly, so words are never just words.

When my purpose was (is) to empower and advance young women, I needed to do this as much through my language as I did through my actions. Given that my role as a teacher of undergraduate engineering students, I had a captive audience of mostly young men, for whom I could model the appropriate language for their peers who happened to be women.

Then, as I moved into the workplace, the use of ‘girl’ was more common than I expected. So, I found a neat alternative to correcting people outright. Instead, I would self-correct.

By this stage I was pretty good at not using ‘girls’, but I realised no one would notice this subtle change in language if I only ever used ‘women’. Instead, I would say:

“I was just speaking to the girl – oh sorry, I mean woman – in Sydney and…”

I would then explain this journey that I had been on and found that my colleagues were interested in understanding and learning more about this. That’s a win in my book. Particularly in the workplace, calling women girls is patronising, and in some contexts sexually suggestive.

Girls to women was my first challenge. The next one was guys.

*Cue some internal groaning about political correctness going mad.

I know what you’re thinking but hear me out. See the next article!

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