What We're Really Doing When We Call Women "Girls"

In a recent episode of The Weather Channel’s Weather Geeks, women meteorologists point out how much it undermines their work as scientists to call them "weather girls." And, I realized, this reflects a broader cultural custom of calling women "girls." Like most gendered terms, this is not an empty sound. It reflects oppressive stereotypes, subtly puts down the people toward whom it's used, and furthers gender inequality over time with repeated usage.

I actually used to be pretty indifferent to our tendency to call women "girls." After all, I thought, we often call men "guys," so isn't it the same thing? Then, I went to a talk about women in tech hosted by the language-learning app Babbel, and it changed my mind. As software engineer Jana Rekittke pointed out, the equivalent is really "boys," since "boys" and "girls" both specifically refer to children. And would you ever hear the phrases "boy boss," "boy power," or "Gilmore Boys"? That would make the things these terms represent — some of which are meant to be serious — sounds frivolous. And that's what "girls" does, too.

Here are all the things we're really doing when we call women "girls" — and why they make the word more harmful than it seems.


We Undermine Individuals

Calling someone a "girl" or "Miss" suggests that she's not a grow-ass woman, which also implies that she's not powerful, capable, or worth being taken seriously.


We Undermine Women As A Group

If we undermine many individuals within a group habitually, we end up undermining that group as a whole. Calling women "girls" contributes to a stereotype that women are petty, helpless, and submissive.


We Encourage Ageism

"Girls" is only a positive term if we believe that aging is negative. Too often, "girl" is actually considered a compliment due to the notion that a woman is less attractive, less desirable, and less important as she gets older. Throwing "girls" around encourages the idea that it should be flattering.


We Assert Power Over Women

"Girl," particularly when it's used by a man — or even by a woman, like when we say "girl, please" — situates the listener as below the speaker and establishes a relationship between two adults that mirrors one between an adult and a child.


We Teach A Negative Model For Relationships

One of the areas where "girls" most comes up is when men are objectifying women. You can hear this in phrases like "I love girls," "they're talking about girls," "girls: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" or "girls drive me crazy." Sexual and romantic uses of "girls" in the context of "locker room talk" among men promotes the notion that in a heterosexual relationship, the ideal woman is submissive.


We Water Down Feminism

Another common use of the word "girls" is, surprisingly, by women aiming to empower one another. "Girl boss," "girl power," "Guerrilla Girls," and "Who run the world? Girls" are all examples. By painting feminists as non-threatening little "girls," the word may make feminism more marketable, but it also makes it seem less serious.


We Maintain Gender Inequality

One of the first hierarchies we learn as children is age. So, it's impossible to use a term that implies something about age without also implying something about power — specifically, that the person deemed younger is less powerful. For all these reasons, saying "girls" maintains a hierarchy that puts women below men. Even if we're using it to describe bosses.