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How not to talk to women in the workplace

By Heather Lansdowne 19 March 2015 48

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Recently I’ve been watching Channel Ten’s reality show Shark Tank, in which nervous entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of “sharks” (successful millionaire businesspeople) with the hopes of securing investment. During the pitching process, I’ve noticed a contestant refer to one of the two female Sharks as “darling” on more than one occasion. I just can’t understand this. I mean, you wouldn’t walk into a room to pitch to Richard Branson and say “Hey stud, have I got a product for you!”

It’s a phenomenon I’ve come across in the workplace time and time again. This persistent belief that it is reasonable to use dismissive or overly familiar parlance with women, but not men, that you work with.

Another thing that irks a lot of people is that fully-grown women are often referred to as “girls” (as in “go and see the girls in accounts”). Newsflash: This is infantilising and insulting, and we don’t appreciate it. We’re not in primary school, so don’t treat us as such.

In addition to this, referring to groups of women as “girls” or “ladies” implies that the gender distinction is an important signifier. I’d much rather refer to groups in a non-gender specific way, as in “go and see the team in accounts”. This might seem overly PC, but I think that symbolism is important and subtle changes like this can help change people’s mindsets in a significant way.

I realise that I may have had a different experience to many Canberrans in that I have primarily worked in the private sector rather than the public service. I heard a great story about a job applicant losing the opportunity to be considered for a public sector job because he referred to the secretary as “honeybun,” and I applaud that decision. If I were an investor on Shark Tank, I’d like to think I would refuse to work with anyone who thought it was appropriate to use language like that with me.

But I’m interested to hear your views and experiences. What are your pet peeves for inappropriate language in the workplace? How does this language differ in the public and private sectors? Let me know in the comments!

What’s Your opinion?


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How not to talk to women in the workplace
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justsomeaussie 11:24 am 23 Mar 15

We need more gender equality. Women are woefully under represented in workplace deaths, manual labour, suicide and prisons to name a few. Let’s work towards creating a society where we have a 50/50 split of women and men in these areas.

And to reiterate feminism doesn’t not equal equality. As has been pointed out equality is egalitarianism. I’m all for women’s groups to push women’s issues the same I am for Aboriginal groups, Jewish, Greek, Muslim etc. But don’t try to convince me it’s about equality. It’s about their specific agenda and that’s perfectly acceptable.

Because if it was about equality then you’d be able to look a these organisations and see that their structures had accurately represented society but how many non Muslims are the head of Muslim organisation, of feminist organisations?

When feminism is about equality is when feminist organisations have an explicit agenda and quotas of men in their ranks and management.

How about rather than just dividing people more into little groups we just be humanists and work together as equals?

rubaiyat 10:49 am 23 Mar 15

Given the assumption of the importance of gender based language shaping sexual dominance, it might be interesting to note that both the German and Italian polite form for “you”, are “sie” and “lei”.

Both are actually “she”.

How has that worked at reducing patriarchal dominance or castrating the male population?

dungfungus 10:25 pm 22 Mar 15

Keijidosha said :

I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned the insidious use of the term ‘guys’ by pretty much anyone working in retail or hospitality when speaking to a group of customers, regardless of gender mix.

Would you be more comfortable if the terminology was expanded to include “dolls”?
I am alluding to the 1950’s Hollywood musical “Guys & Dolls”.

rubaiyat 4:15 pm 22 Mar 15

Keijidosha said :

I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned the insidious use of the term ‘guys’ by pretty much anyone working in retail or hospitality when speaking to a group of customers, regardless of gender mix.

Yes when “persons” trips off the tongue so easily!

…until that also gets some pejorative association.

Ah the collateral damage of the English language.

Why do people waste so much time attacking the words instead of the deeds?

Antagonist 3:56 pm 22 Mar 15

OP: “Another thing that irks a lot of people is that fully-grown women are often referred to as “girls” (as in “go and see the girls in accounts”). Newsflash: This is infantilising and insulting, and we don’t appreciate it. We’re not in primary school, so don’t treat us as such.

OP: In addition to this, referring to groups of women as “girls” or “ladies” implies that the gender distinction is an important signifier. I’d much rather refer to groups in a non-gender specific way, as in “go and see the team in accounts”. This might seem overly PC, but I think that symbolism is important and subtle changes like this can help change people’s mindsets in a significant way.”

I find that people who take offence at the little things you point out are, in most cases, not worth the time of day. Typically, it is the whine of the argumentative person in the office who cannot play well with others. The same person is often the staff member that no manager wants on their team and others staff do not want to work with, and is likely to be the subject of underperformance/disciplinary action.

A true ‘feminist’, a term that has (IMO) been hijacked by extremist elements and no longer means ‘equality’, is more interested in tackling the bigger problems that contribute to real gender inequality. Things such as the career glass-ceiling, equal pay for equal work, sexual harassment – the big issues that really matter.

Keijidosha 2:01 pm 22 Mar 15

I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned the insidious use of the term ‘guys’ by pretty much anyone working in retail or hospitality when speaking to a group of customers, regardless of gender mix.

gooterz 8:41 pm 21 Mar 15

‘Girls’ and ‘ladies’ is the least of their worries, I always get ‘guys’ ‘gents’ ‘hon’, ‘buddy’, ‘dude’.
Every workplace I’ve been at there has been so much angst among different female groups that David Attenborough would have a hard time to describe the dynamics.
Still don’t get why some women feel they can’t wear the same outfit twice (ever).
I can also never keep up with who is in and who is out in terms of group acceptance.

rubaiyat 1:01 pm 21 Mar 15

I am all for women taking on whatever half of holding up the heavens works for them.

It would be stupid to not use the best available people to get things done.

The title of this piece ironically spells out the problem:

“How not to talk to women in the workplace”

Make it difficult enough and we’ll all be avoiding the “speakwrite” and “face crime” that already pervades the Public Service and leads to the more insane self-reinforcemend decisions.

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