How words denigrate women

I suggested to the presenters of a popular breakfast television program that they mark International Women’s Day 2009 by committing to referring to women as women, rather than referring to women as girls. This language use is most prevalent in sports reporting.

I received a response from the female presenter, saying she considered it a compliment to refer to women as girls and that she regularly referred to her women friends as ‘girlfriends’. Her underlying theory is that referring to women as girls emphasises how we are “all young and gorgeous creatures”.

Sure, women are gorgeous creatures, however using ‘girls’ to reinforce youthfulness is misguided. Women already suffer enough from our cultural emphasis on youth, without reinforcing it through calling women ‘girls’. A far better proposition is to reinforce how gorgeous women are of all ages and that mature women of any age are gorgeous.

Also consider the role language plays in shaping our reality. Dale Spender pointed out that: “Language is our means of classifying and ordering the world: our means of manipulating reality.” Bias can be located in language, relegating certain groups to a secondary and inferior place in society. Constantly referring to women as ‘girls’, particularly when they are clearly mature women, is one way to perpetuate views that women hold a secondary place in the world.

But, you may say, women can do anything these days. If that were so for most women, then we would no longer need millions of dollars being spent on:

  • improving women’s economic outcomes and financial independence;
  • ensuring women’s voices are heard at all levels of decision-making; and,
  • reducing violence against women. (the Government’s key priorities)

If that were so, media coverage of women’s sport would be on a par with men.

If that were so, sportswomen would earn comparable amounts to men.

If that were so, the finals of sporting events, such as in tennis, would alternate between the men and women, rather than always finishing with the men’s finals.

Then there’s the matter of language balance. If most men were referred to as boys, then the parallel use of calling women ‘girls’ would not be so noticeable. But this is not the case. Nor do we hear the derogatory expressions used for fathers and fathers-in-law that we hear for mothers and mothers-in-law. For example, ‘Even your mother would understand this.’ Somehow mothers are a measure of the lowest levels of performance that are rarely attributed to fathers.

Then there’s the response that: “I don’t use ‘girl’ to mean a put down.” This is like saying “It doesn’t matter that most children’s clothing comes in pink and blue because I hunt down other colours.” Literally, a girl is a female child or young person. Women are not girls.

Words matter. Calling women ‘girls’ matters. For people to be treated as equals they have to be spoken about and to on equal terms. Women are women, not girls.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.

Dale Spender, Man Made Language, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1980
Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and Women, Penguin Books, UK, 1979