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I have worked in the cybersecurity division of my employer in the United States for about 9 years with last 4 years, in a management role.

I have a female colleague whom I know well , and is also in a management role, albeit at a lower level than I am (team lead , 6 direct reports for her). While I am older than her, age difference is only 4 years apart. I don't supervise her in any way, but we do share a N+2 skip level manager.

Today, a project we were both involved in was completed and stakeholders gave us excellent feedback. I said to my colleague: Nice work, girl! and you really are a team player, girl meant to compliment her for work well done. Again, we know each other well, so I did not think much of it.

My intent is that girl in this context is not meant to be taken literally as derogatory substitute for her true name, but rather an informal greeting / acknowledgement between good friends. However, a separate colleague in my team pointed out to me that girl in the way I used it could be perceived to be derogatory and condescending , as if my colleague was of lesser worth, and diminishing her status. My intent was never to be malicious or rude

Questions:

Is the word girl in above context rude and unprofessional?

If so, should I apologize to her or is ignoring but being more mindful in future the better option?

Note: English is my second language but I have lived in US for close to 30 years and am a citizen. I am male.

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13 Answers 13

26

There are several answers already saying you made a faux pas in this instance, which I agree with - referring to a grown adult as "girl" is not a good look in a professional context.

Your 1:1 relationship with the colleague to whom you addressed the remark will determine the extent to which she might feel offended or patronised, and the latitude she will give to the intention of your comment over the clumsy phrasing. Perhaps in a 1:1 situation this would have been OK.

But remember you also said this in front of other people, who won't know the full details of the dynamics of your relationship. Those people saw an older, more senior, male manager referring to a female colleague with a term that they might justifiably see as patriarchal and patronising. Consciously or unconsciously, they will be thinking if you can be a team lead with 6 direct reports and still be referred to as "girl" by your superior in public, what do the big bosses think of the junior ladies in private? You don't want to be seen to normalise this sort of thinking.

So it's not just about the 2 of you. For example, I'm good friends with my direct manager. Outside of work, over a couple of beers we might discuss all sorts of things and either of us might tell the other they're "clueless" or "deluded" in a friendly way while debating the merits of 70s rock music, and we'd both be OK with this. Put those same words into the context of a disagreement over policy or a technical issue at work and they might just be OK in a 1:1 said with a smile. But discussing the same issue in a team meeting, they are completely unacceptable as they create an environment of insubordination or bullying (depending on who says them) for the rest of the team even if neither of us had an issue with what was said.

TL;DR: It's not just about the two of you. Phrasing that might be fine between the two of you in a personal situation, or just about OK in a 1:1 friendly-professional context, was not appropriate in this instance.

70

Is the word girl in above context rude and unprofessional?

Just to be safe, whenever you are not sure or have to ask, please do not use the word "Girl" or "Boy" at work at all.

In your particular case, generally speaking, it is likely considered unprofessional in the office or IT environment to use the word "Girl" or "Boy" to address a coworker.

Let's look at one simple example: Do you feel comfortable if that woman replies to you in front of everyone: "Hey BOY, thanks for your trust in my ability to do a good job" ?

However, there may be some small exceptions in different scenarios as follows:

It is probably OK when 2 women are very close friends and often call each other "Girl" outside work, and they occasionally call each other "Girl" at work in a friendly manner. Also, people still use the words "Girl Band" and "Boy Band" to describe music bands of grown female and male musicians.

should I apologize to her or is ignoring but being more mindful in future the better option?

It is a very good idea for you to apologize and tell her that you are sorry for calling her "Girl" even though you were only trying to be friendly and not derogatory or condescending at all.

As you wrote in your post, there is already one person telling you that your choice of the word "Girl" could be perceived as derogatory and condescending. This is a very clear sign that either that woman may feel uncomfortable or someone else in your team may feel uneasy with that word.

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  • 9
    To be fair, the OP was probably sure it was ok to say when he said it, but only became unsure when someone else called him out on it. May 6, 2023 at 21:07
  • 2
    +1 - just because she hasn't said anything to you doesn't mean she appreciates it. She might be holding back to maintain your relationship. Referring to people by their gender isn't considered appropriate for work and is going out of style outside the office.
    – LeLetter
    May 10, 2023 at 21:41
47

Is the word girl in above context rude and unprofessional?

"Derogatory" is in the eye of the beholder, and often, context is most important.

I would never use the diminutive term "girl" in a professional setting. But I've heard women use the phrase "You go, girl!" among themselves.

In your case, you would have been better served to omit the term completely. "Nice work!" and "you really are a team player" would have been less derogatory and equally effective.

If so, should I apologize to her or is ignoring but being more mindful in future the better option?

It would make sense to privately express that you have have been thinking it over, are worried about your use of the term, and that you meant no disrespect. These are all things you indicated here. Saying the same to your colleague would almost certainly be well-received, even if no offense was actually taken.

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7

Ask her!

I feel like this would be better on Interpersonal ... but:

First of all, you say you are good friends so you could easily just ask her if calling her "girl" in that way bothered her. It seems like the kind of thing that would be OK between good friends but not in a more formal context, so the third person probably didn't take that into account.

If you're still worried it might be deemed unprofessional, maybe in future, only use language like that in a more social or private environment, but not at work in full view of the rest of your colleagues. (Or at least not in front of any colleagues that you don't know will see the friendly side of it).

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    It's not about just the OP and the person he addressed. Others were present as well, and they can feel intimidated by the used language. Regardless of the the addressed person will say about it when asked, it's still unprofessional language, and should not have been used.
    – Abigail
    May 5, 2023 at 22:51
  • Nobody should be intimidated by this, especially when addressed at someone else. However, people may feel that the language is offensive and inappropriate, and hold it against you, while not being in the slightest intimidated.
    – gnasher729
    May 6, 2023 at 12:34
  • @Abigail - hence my last paragraph
    – komodosp
    May 8, 2023 at 10:02
5

Is the word girl in above context rude and unprofessional?

Yes. It certainly CAN feel inappropriate. There may be a context where its ok, but if you are not 100% sure (which you are clearly not), don't use it.

You may or may not have offended your colleague. Unless you ask, you won't know.

If so, should I apologize to her or is ignoring but being more mindful in future the better option?

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor infraction. Its not an obvious insult and was done with good intentions. Just don't do it again, and you'll be fine. However, there is nothing wring with apologizing either, especially if you phrase it as a learning question. "Hey, I realized I called you girl the other day and now it occurs to me that this may have been inappropriate. Did I unintentionally offend you ?" Then take your cues from her reply.

4

I have a female colleague whom I know well , and is also in a management role, albeit at a lower level than I am (team lead , 6 direct reports for her). While I am older than her, age difference is only 4 years apart. I don't supervise her in any way, but we do share a N+2 skip level manager.

None of this extra information is necessary to the question.

The person is an adult. When you use the term girl, it is dangerous. The person it is directed to may or may not be offended. The other people that hear it might be offended.

You feel that the other person was fine with it. But others were not. That is the danger.

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  • In some languages that are not English, the word used to describe or address another person changes depending on that person's age relative to the speaker (i.e. you use one word to address someone older than you, and a different word to address someone younger). Japanese in particular is big on this sort of thing. It is possible that OP has mistakenly imported this grammatical rule into English (which has no notion of such a thing).
    – Kevin
    May 5, 2023 at 18:46
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There's a slight difference in usage of "girl" compared to "boy" in my experience, with "girl" more rarely (and perhaps not at all) used to insult or demean an individual situationally, so there isn't quite an equality between them.

For example, "girls" might often be used complementing "guys", not "boys".

However, it's highly informal when used in phrases in the same way a person's name would be used ("you go, girl!"), and is only safely used amongst friends.

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  • For me,the feminine of guy is gal, not girl
    – keshlam
    May 6, 2023 at 14:26
  • @keshlam, agreed, but the point is that "girls" seems acceptable for a far wider age range. With some cringe on my part, I've heard reference in the past (in at least two separate workplaces) to the "admin girls" (encompassing middle-aged women), but if by analogy we said the "sales boys", then that doesn't sound like a legitimate idiom to my ear. In other words, it's far more than disrespectful, it's confusing and incorrect.
    – Steve
    May 6, 2023 at 15:12
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    @Steve - Ask the woman in your life if how they feel. Guarantee they will tell you “girls” is not a respectful term, gals, in the context of outside of a professional environment might be acceptable.
    – Donald
    May 7, 2023 at 14:53
  • @Donald, as I say in my further comment, I'm not denying that I cringed at such uses. But it doesn't sound incorrect, just demeaning (especially as in both cases I recall, it referred not just to young adults but to a team including middle-age women, and this was in two different workplaces). By contrast, I gave the analogy of "sales boys" - that doesn't just sound demeaning, it sounds incorrect. There are only idiomatic exceptions like "jobs for the boys" or "a boys' club". In this way, the words "girl" and "boy" are not equivalent.
    – Steve
    May 7, 2023 at 16:47
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In 1962, Bob Dylan wrote, "How many roads must a man walk down Before you call him a man?".

It took me 60 years to make learn the lyric is a reference to calling adult Black males "boy". Fortunately, I knew to not address anyone over the age of 12 as "boy" or "girl". Today, I address my 8 year old grand-daughter as "young-lady" along with more endearing names.

My mother when she was in her nineties called her contemporaries her "girl-friends". When I was 26, she was cross and felt misled when I brought home "a woman" for lunch. The woman was 24 years old, so "girl" was not appropriate We were not romantically involved, so "girl-friend" didn't fit either, even if I had my hopes.

So what do you call a young female? I still don't know, but in this case I call her my wonderful wife of 42 years.

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    How do you call a young female? The person did a good job, neither her age nor her gender matters. She has a name. Use that.
    – Abigail
    May 5, 2023 at 22:56
  • As an ex teacher I would call the children that I worked with by there names. They where girls and boys, but I still called them by the names they where christened by.
    – Neil Meyer
    May 7, 2023 at 13:57
  • 2
    “So what do you call a young female?” -Their name
    – Donald
    May 7, 2023 at 14:50
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Could your colleague have taken offence? Who knows, but I suspect you believe there is a small chance, which is why you posted.

In a very informal exchange between coworkers of all sexes and genders, the OP can use the term dude. Just like guy has been gender-neutral for many years, so too the American expression dude. It is used to greet and address women and men alike.

Great work, dude!

Outside informal exchanges, stick to the person's name. It's safer.

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  • If you really want to use a gendered term, "gal" is far safer than "girl", for the reason others have already addressed -- diminutive can be taken as dismissive or demeaning. (I'm an easy coaster, "dude" us less communication n here generally and the non-gendered usage is rare but not unknown in my experience.)
    – keshlam
    May 5, 2023 at 13:27
  • I hear the term "dude", which is never derogatory, to address American young men and women quite frequently. And I live in Italy! I would never address any of my English speaking male or female colleagues as "boy" or "girl". It sounds incredibly condescending as if were stuck in Victorian times. But in Italy it's quite normal to call a 40-year-old man "ragazzo" = "boy", without batting an eyelid. The meaning is much closer to young person than child. If the OP has a niggling feeling he made a faux pas he probably did.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2023 at 13:13
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    English is not my first language (nor do I live in the US) but I always raise my eyebrows when I'm addressed with "dude" (or hear it used to address someone else). Maybe it is my association with "Dude, where's my car" and "The big Lebowski", and general experienced it mostly uttered by stoners or teenagers, but I don't think this advice works globally. May 7, 2023 at 16:19
  • @MarkRotteveel my tip to use "dude" as a gender neutral way to address colleagues of all sexes was not meant to be relevant worldwide, I think it works in most American states but less so in a British work environment.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2023 at 20:55
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    Honestly, I am not sure "dude" can be considered gender neutral today, even in America. Honestly, I wouldn't think very highly of anyone that used, "dude" to refer to somebody in a professional work environment.
    – Donald
    May 8, 2023 at 16:13
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The question here has two, contradictory answers.

The first is the official answer - which is 'The usage of Girl to an adult female is demeaning'

But I don't take such a strict and one dimensional view of language. Now to give the complainant (who I understand was not the person the comment was directed at) credence, there is/was in ye olden times a prevalence of the old boys club calling all the Women who worked in offices 'The Girls' or some equivalent - a la Mad Men. I've not seen it myself in the almost 20 years of professional life - but I think it's fair to acknowledge that it used to be common and probably still happens and so someone might be sensitive to it.

However, I said there was a contradictory answer - which is that you have a rapport with the person who you directed it to - and I have seen some people use it in a similar sense - one very bubbly Sales person used to call everyone by various epithets - including Girl and in one case to me 'Sweetness' (which if you knew me, would make the comment even more hilarious) - I don't subscribe to the idea that a 3rd party observer gets to determine either the intent of the language used or the interpretation of the recipient - and so from this point of view, since you have that rapport with the person - giving them a 'You Go Girl!' is well within the bounds of normal conversation and I personally wouldn't take any notice of this person's opinion - unless they are higher up in your management where you have to take notice of their opinion.

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  • If you think it doesn't still happen, take a look through this stack at how many questions there are about "how do I approach this girl at work that I like..."
    – shoover
    May 5, 2023 at 23:16
  • @shoover - As I said, I've never heard 'Girls' being used in a demeaning or dismissive sense in my 20 years of corporate working. There are probably some fringe cases out there, but it's not the exception rather than the rule. May 6, 2023 at 1:16
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    @TheDemonLord Consider the opposite. If colleagues were calling you 'boy' - without intending diminishment - how would you view it?
    – mcalex
    May 7, 2023 at 15:06
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    You may want to consider optics. If someone higher up calls someone lower on the organizational ladder "girl", it might convey to observers that the higher up looks down on the other person, or even is sexist and considers women in general lesser than men (especially if in similar situations with a man, they don't use such a diminutive). There is not simply a one-to-one effect if this is done in public. May 7, 2023 at 16:24
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    @mcalex - "Show me what you boys have been working on" - Suffice to say, if there is no intended demeaning, then I couldn't care less. May 7, 2023 at 19:36
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What should also be mentioned is that the title of girl may infer a type of personal relationship that may be misleading to some and may make certain parties to the conversation uncomfortable.

It is for the same reason why when I used to work with children I found the title of "Oom" unacceptable. Because it gave the impression that I had a personal relationship with the child that I was uncomfortable in having.

Although to some older teachers all of this was like water of a duck's back.

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I will say that it might be unprofessional if it was told at the workplace and at a time at work. It also changes as the relationship you have with your colleague's position. If you are equal to your colleague's position you might comments like this still as a friend and not as a colleague. Another thing you should stay away from that person who was third partying and tried to sabotage your friendship with your colleague. Because there are many elements in office who tries to ruin your reputation with just these type of comments even if they are friendly. Just remember that this type of people can also play with words and it can be manipulative to your mind because you commented that person with "Girl" and "Boy".

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    The third party in this situation is not "trying to sabotage" anything, they provided OP with useful information and advice.
    – kaya3
    May 7, 2023 at 2:56
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    @kaya3 : no, that third party appropriated the alleged offense of someone else who wasn't even offended. It's like when white Americans tell other Americans that they aren't allowed to wear a sombrero because it offends the Mexicans, while actual Mexicans are not offended at all.
    – Val
    May 9, 2023 at 7:04
-6

The most offensive one in this story (if there is one at all) was the third colleague who appropriated someone else's feelings. Whether calling your colleague "girl" is condescending or not, is to be decided solely by the affected collage. If she is fine with it, then it is no one else's business.

As many others stated, it is usually not a good idea to call a random female colleague as "girl". However if you are close enough together and if she likes if you call her so, then it is not up to a third person to dictate how you are allowed to call her, especially if you do so in private. This assumes of course that she is fine with it, which is only implied but not stated in the original question.

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  • Hm this is strange. Isn't the viewpoint of most of this community that people should be called as they themselves prefer to be called, instead of what a third person wants to dictate?
    – Val
    May 8, 2023 at 16:21

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