Women, Ladies, and Girls at Work

Ty emailed me to ask this question:

I recently wrote an email to several co-workers, all of whom happen to be women (I am not) and opened with the greeting "Ladies." Is this in any way inappropriate or offensive?

Some words always offend. I won’t mention them here, but you can imagine a few of them.

Some words offend if the user intends to offend or pigeonhole the other person. For example, boy is a neutral word, but when used by a white person to refer to a man of color, it’s offensive. It puts that person in a specific, lower place. By contrast, my mother, who is 84 years old, loves Tiger Woods. She refers to him as "my boy." Given her age, her status as a fan, and her affectionate "my boy," her use of boy is understandable, but it might not work for another woman outside the nursing home.

Other words offend if the audience finds them offensive. Ladies, girls, and even women are three of those words.

Some women love to be called ladies. To them, the word connotes class and distinction and having doors opened for them (literally).

Other women dislike the label ladies. They think of themselves as women, men’s equal. To them, ladies connotes fragility and delicacy, and they do not want to be seen as fragile or delicate at work. The doors they want opened are the doors to opportunity.

Some women don’t care either way about the word ladies.

Girls is usually not the right term for the workplace given that most females at work are not girls–they are women. Using girls can be seen as a putdown. However, some women adore being called girls. They refer to themselves as girls and intend to be girlish forever. Until a man is certain he is working with women who like to be called girls, he should avoid the term. And girls should not be used in writing. It is inappropriate to email "I will have my girl set up a meeting." My and girl together smell of paternalism, which normally doesn’t sit well at work. Although my mother can get away with "I hope my boy does well in the golf tournament," she is not Tiger’s boss.

You might think women would be a safe term. But there are women who want to know why they are not being called ladies.

Ty, my suggestion is that you find out how the women/ladies/girls at work want to be addressed. Then recognize that it will change with changes in the group. So call them "team members."

To my female readers: Most men who write to me with this type of question, as Ty did, write because they have been criticized for their language. Let’s not criticize. Let’s all assume the best motives of the men–and women–we work with. And when we disagree with their approach, let’s share our preferences rather than implying that they are wrong. It’s nearly impossible to be right when people have such differing views.

Note: I live and work on the liberal West Coast of the United States, and my experiences are limited by geography, age, and status. Please share your opinions.

Lynn

11 COMMENTS

  1. Lynn,
    Very helpful post. I know I don’t want to make mistakes, and sometimes it can feel very confusing knowing what to do. Asking and not assuming are simple responses that can make all the difference.

    I have lived around the country, and there absolutely are regional differences. I have always found people who are willing to help me understand the particulars of a culture or area. I don’t assume everyone wants to talk about these things, and honor a ‘no’ if someone isn’t comfortable. I have found that most people want to help out.

  2. Christine, your comment reminded me of a time I led a seminar in South Carolina. When the attendees addressed me as “Miss Lynn,” I thought at first they were teasing me. I soon learned, though, that it was a normal respectful greeting.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Interesting post. In my professional setting, I use people’s first names. I guess I tend to avoid the opportunity to offend. But, perhaps, that might offend, too. I do like the idea of asking someone how they would like to be addressed. Works for either gender.

  4. I would say names are normally the best way to address people. But when one is writing to, let’s say, five or more people, a group greeting is probably more workable.

  5. Margaret, thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading the August 1 post.

    As for R-E-S-P-E-C-T, I find it much more natural to give it to people rather than institutions or buildings. For example, I would not wear flipflops to your house if I were visiting you and knew you didn’t like them, but I would wear them to the White House. That’s because I would not be making a personal visit. There would be no one to offend–or would there?

    In any case, thanks for the thought-provoking read.

    Lynn

  6. I am an junior executive at a large consulting firm. I addressed an email the other day, titled “hi Ladies” to a group of women and was REAMED by another female executive for doing so. I live on the liberal west coast, have lived in nyc and have NEVER, EVER, encountered anyone so irritated by this term before. I will no longer address my emails with anything… will just be like the rest of the world and start all emails with the content.

  7. I think “women” is the best term, and “girls” is the worst. “Women” is neutral, “ladies” is similar to “women,” and “girls” can be patronizing. I say go for “women” when in doubt for a formal necessity.

  8. I have been challenged recently when discussing a focus group for women, when feeding back I referred to the comments from the ‘ladies’ and was immediately told off by several people at the meeting. One said women do not like being called ‘ladies’ as its patronizing. I asked because I often work with mixed groups, when wishing to gain their attention is ‘ladies and gentlement’ not acceptable and if not what is the alternative. Male and female seems incorrect, as does men and women. I am told addressing a group as ‘guys’ is not advisable too… So how do I gain attention from a group, I am asking to come back to the centre of the group after splitting off to do skills practice with other group members???

  9. Hi, Tracy. You might ring a little bell or strike a gong or flash the lights. But then someone would say they don’t like responding to bells, gongs, or flashing lights.

    I never find myself using “Ladies and Gentlemen” in a group. More likely terms are “Everyone,” “Everybody,” and “Team.” I also use no term and say simply, “Okay, let’s move back to our regular places.”

    I am sorry people jumped on you for your use of “ladies.” Perhaps they were trying to convey that focus group attendees are referred to as “women.”

    Lynn

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