A reader 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 (hence you should know your audience!). 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.
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 this reader 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.
Also, there is a wonderful site called askher.com which, in their own words, is a “women generated, knowledge-based, Q&A platform.” If you want to further this discussion, that would be a great place to post the question. And if you do, please feel free to share what you’ve learned with us!