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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!

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48 Responses to
How not to talk to women in the workplace
rubaiyat 1:03 pm 19 Mar 15

dungfungus said :

Some people demand to be offended.

I second that.

Had a young female employee who killed all the humorous banter that had made the workplace tolerable.

She seemed to take everything she didn’t like (a very long list) as being against her, down to the choice of music being played by the owner of the business.

Any attempts at trying to accommodate her only confirmed the correctness of her own opinions.

Milly Withers 12:32 pm 19 Mar 15

I understand that the sentiment behind calling women “girls” or “darling” generally isn’t intended to be sexist or negative (often quite the opposite), but it can feel condescending at times. I used to work in a marketing team of three (myself and two males) and I found that being called “love” often preceded being asked by my supervisor to pick up catering, tidy up the kitchen or perform other tasks that the more junior male members of my team were never asked.

In that context, not okay. But I don’t feel like calling the all-female admin team “admin girls” or the men in IT the “IT boys” is a bad thing.

When it comes to equality in the workplace I’d rather go after employees who think its okay to pay a male team member more than their female manager, which happened to me in a former life in the private sector.

On the other hand, I find being called “Lovely” or “Darling” by female shop assistants almost equally as infuriating.

Solidarity 12:22 pm 19 Mar 15

If someone takes offense to something in the workplace, you refrain from calling them that thing…

Male or female…

Some people will suck it up and be fine, other people will moan about it… it’s up to you, the individual, to address other people in a way that they don’t take offense to.

You’ll get the whingers who complain about everything of course, but that’s just the way it is.

neanderthalsis 12:14 pm 19 Mar 15

Let’s see, we have the boys in IT, the ladies in accounts, the girls on reception, or the venerable greybeards (I liked that one). “Team” sounds a bit to American corporate hype-like to me, the sort of thing you’d expect from someone who thinks a short sleeve shirt and a tie is appropriate work attire, too impersonal, too PC, too PS and too much BS.

I think I heat the rattle of the tea lady’s cart, better go a get a brew.

Postalgeek 11:58 am 19 Mar 15

I find words like ‘budget review’, ‘cutback’, ‘outsourced’, ‘efficiency dividend’, and ‘redundancy’ to be very confronting language when used in the workplace.

dungfungus 11:55 am 19 Mar 15

Mysteryman said :

I hear older women call younger men “love”, “darling”, “darl”, etc. I’ve had them refer to me as such, many, many times.

I don’t care though. You know why? Because rather than looking for offence at every possible opportunity, I accept that not everyone shows their fondness or respect in the exact same way. Older women (and some younger ones) use pet names a lot, in my experience, but it doesn’t demonstrate a lack of respect or some evil sexist agenda. It’s just how they were raised and how they speak. And in this age of ridiculous political and cultural sanitisation, it’s actually very refreshing and I welcome it.

Many older men tend to do the same thing towards younger women. I’ve seen that, too. It really seems to stick in the craw of some females, though. That’s a shame. Rather than seeing the intent, they chose to take offense.

Some people demand to be offended.

dungfungus 11:55 am 19 Mar 15

Dame Canberra said :

This is one of my biggest peeves in the workplace, though in my experience it’s far worse in the private sector than in the public service (which is too PC for its own good, but that’s another story).

In a previous job the business owner used to send emails to the three women in the office (aged between mid-twenties and mid-forties) asking if the “girls” could please answer the phone and greet guests when the receptionist was away. Never mind that there were over 20 men in the office who could also hear the phone ringing and keep an eye on the lobby. The “girls” were also recruited to set up for office morning teas and clean the staff kitchen, and in two years I never saw a man asked to perform the same duties. The business owner was female too, so I would say both genders have a lot of room for improvement!

I have seen from time to time headlines in daily papers saying “another job for the boys” in relation to job appointments made by politicians.
These reports are usually authored by female reporters. How is that for some gender balance?

watto23 11:27 am 19 Mar 15

Mysteryman said :

I hear older women call younger men “love”, “darling”, “darl”, etc. I’ve had them refer to me as such, many, many times.

I don’t care though. You know why? Because rather than looking for offence at every possible opportunity, I accept that not everyone shows their fondness or respect in the exact same way. Older women (and some younger ones) use pet names a lot, in my experience, but it doesn’t demonstrate a lack of respect or some evil sexist agenda. It’s just how they were raised and how they speak. And in this age of ridiculous political and cultural sanitisation, it’s actually very refreshing and I welcome it.

Many older men tend to do the same thing towards younger women. I’ve seen that, too. It really seems to stick in the craw of some females, though. That’s a shame. Rather than seeing the intent, they chose to take offense.

Agree. I’m all for women being treated as equals in society. I go by actions speak louder than words. The problem is for every man making life difficult for women in the workforce, there is an equally militant feminist doing the same, thinking they are making life better for women.

Feminism is not what society needs. Equalism is what we need. We over analyse gender all the time. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if a women used the word darling, yet here I’m being told if a man uses it, he is sexist.
I call many of my female friends mate as much as I call male friends mate. I don’t use the word darl or darling, but thats just my generation I guess. I’ve been called far worse things by females in the office than other men. To be honest this should be equally offensive to so called feminists, but rarely is.

Society won’t get better for women if we pick every little thing up. Occasionally things are said, they may not be overly PC, but they aren’t offensive.

I’m an engineer and when I went to Uni there was 1 woman doing engineering. I don’t think it has improved much, its not like there is an aggressive anti woman movement among engineers and in IT. In fact my experience is a woman is far more likely to be hired in IT and engineering over a man, because they are just so rare and add a different perspective to discussion and teamwork.

Spiral 11:17 am 19 Mar 15

I also hear the term “boys” used a lot (I’m a contractor to the PS). Not sure if I’ve heard “girls” used much (if at all). I only hear “boys” used to refer to a team that is all male, and as I don’t usually deal with all female teams, perhaps that’s why I don’t hear “girls” used.

I wonder if the males find “boys” offensive? Perhaps I’ll wander over and have a chat with the boys from Database and see if they find the term offensive.

chewy14 10:56 am 19 Mar 15

Mysteryman said :

I hear older women call younger men “love”, “darling”, “darl”, etc. I’ve had them refer to me as such, many, many times.

I don’t care though. You know why? Because rather than looking for offence at every possible opportunity, I accept that not everyone shows their fondness or respect in the exact same way. Older women (and some younger ones) use pet names a lot, in my experience, but it doesn’t demonstrate a lack of respect or some evil sexist agenda. It’s just how they were raised and how they speak. And in this age of ridiculous political and cultural sanitisation, it’s actually very refreshing and I welcome it.

Many older men tend to do the same thing towards younger women. I’ve seen that, too. It really seems to stick in the craw of some females, though. That’s a shame. Rather than seeing the intent, they chose to take offense.

+ 1000000.

I’ve been called all these kinds of names at work and outside and I don’t care. Simply because I can see through the words to the meaning being conveyed, which is not in the slightest bit offensive or sexist.

Sometimes the person using this language may indeed be sexist but it’s not because of their use of these types of terms.

VYBerlinaV8_is_back 10:40 am 19 Mar 15

It’s quite normal for older women to refer to men as ‘darl’, ‘love’ or some variant. Younger women don’t tend to do this, though, in my experience.

We still have gender stereotypes. Recently at work I was asked to help lift a small filing cabinet onto a trolley, despite there being multiple females in the vicinity. Like most men, I was happy to help out rather than calling out the obvious gender stereotype on display.

While it’s true there is still some way to go in addressing genuine gender imbalance issues, especially in relation to harrassment in the workplace, I don’t think the casual and well-intentioned terminology of older workers is something that needs to be made into a battleground.

Ghettosmurf87 10:34 am 19 Mar 15

Mysteryman said :

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.

I’ve seen the exact same thing countless more times when men have been referred to as “boys”. They didn’t kick up a stick, though, because they saw it as nothing to be offended about.

I’d have to agree there. If a team is all one gender, there is often a reference to that gender when talking about the team. “Go and see the boys over in Property” “the guys in Security will sign you in” etc. Where there is a mix of genders, it happens less frequently, but still does anyway because it’s just an easy, common way to refer to a group.

And I’m in the public service, not private sector.

You also talk about being overly familiar, but many guys will say to another guy, “thanks mate”, despite not knowing them very well. I think most of us are grown up enough to know when someone is being either condescending/lecherous or when they are just being a bit relaxed and mean nothing by a comment. But sure, we could go the way of the PC and sterilise the world completely. Or just join the military and only refer to colleagues by rank and/or serial number?

Mysteryman 10:22 am 19 Mar 15

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.

I’ve seen the exact same thing countless more times when men have been referred to as “boys”. They didn’t kick up a stick, though, because they saw it as nothing to be offended about.

Mysteryman 10:20 am 19 Mar 15

I hear older women call younger men “love”, “darling”, “darl”, etc. I’ve had them refer to me as such, many, many times.

I don’t care though. You know why? Because rather than looking for offence at every possible opportunity, I accept that not everyone shows their fondness or respect in the exact same way. Older women (and some younger ones) use pet names a lot, in my experience, but it doesn’t demonstrate a lack of respect or some evil sexist agenda. It’s just how they were raised and how they speak. And in this age of ridiculous political and cultural sanitisation, it’s actually very refreshing and I welcome it.

Many older men tend to do the same thing towards younger women. I’ve seen that, too. It really seems to stick in the craw of some females, though. That’s a shame. Rather than seeing the intent, they chose to take offense.

Dame Canberra 10:20 am 19 Mar 15

This is one of my biggest peeves in the workplace, though in my experience it’s far worse in the private sector than in the public service (which is too PC for its own good, but that’s another story).

In a previous job the business owner used to send emails to the three women in the office (aged between mid-twenties and mid-forties) asking if the “girls” could please answer the phone and greet guests when the receptionist was away. Never mind that there were over 20 men in the office who could also hear the phone ringing and keep an eye on the lobby. The “girls” were also recruited to set up for office morning teas and clean the staff kitchen, and in two years I never saw a man asked to perform the same duties. The business owner was female too, so I would say both genders have a lot of room for improvement!

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