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We need to talk about using pet names for women at work

Pet names like “missy,” “kiddo,” and “girl” aren’t cute or funny. Two researchers contend that language like that in the workplace is unprofessional and sexist.

We need to talk about using pet names for women at work
[Images: George Marks/Getty Images; Olga Kurbatova/iStock]
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In 2009, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”

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More than a decade later, women are still given signals that they do not belong in professional spaces. For example, a Pennsylvania city administrator announced she is leaving her post in January due in part to being called diminishing names. Jody L. Ocker, a retired Air Force Colonel, told Sunbury City Council, “I’m not ‘kid’ or ‘dear.’ I am not the ‘girl’ you hired for the front office to just do whatever I’m told.” Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been referred to with the diminishing term “girl.” A voter recently explained why he didn’t support Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, “I thought the girl just wanted the job because she wanted to be the boss, that’s all.” Clinton was a 69-year-old woman at the time of the election.

In our joint research, we have collected women’s stories of workplace gender bias. Many professional women in our data expressed dismay at being referred to with pet names and diminutives such as “missy,” “kiddo,” and “girl.” While some pet names (“sweetheart,” “honey,” etc.) may be used to express affection in the home or in romantic relationships, they are not appropriate in the workplace. Imagine going to see your male lawyer about writing a contract. How likely are you to refer to him as “little boy” or “sweetheart?” Addressing a man that way in the workplace sounds ridiculous, yet it’s common for women.

The subtle undertone to pet names is a sexist message that women don’t belong in professional settings and lack competence. A mathematician whose male bosses refer to her as “sweetie” and “honey” commented, “It’s like they are intimidated by my abilities and so to ‘put me in my place’ they need to use demoralizing pet names to make me seem not as competent.”

Referring to women with pet names and diminutives is an example of treating women as they would be in the home, as mothers, sisters, daughters, or wives. The problematic nature of such terms was pointed out by a leader in a faith-based nonprofit who was called “sweetie,” “dear,” and “hon” by her organization’s top leaders. She commented, “They are meaning it in a nice way like they see me as a granddaughter, but it comes off condescending and somewhat demeaning because I’m not a child and this is a professional setting.” An engineer described how even some men who worked for her have addressed her with pet names like “sweetie,” “dear,” and “baby.”

A common diminutive term is the word “girl” to refer to an adult woman. When a marketing firm partner was sharing research with the board of a nonprofit for which she was doing pro-bono work, a board member commented, “I don’t know who this girl is, but I completely disagree with her.” (Fortunately, the owner of the marketing firm interjected, “This woman is a partner in my company and was the lead designer on the project.”) In another example, an architect’s boss told her, “It doesn’t even matter that you’re a girl anymore,” referencing her in-demand skills. Not only was the comment mistaken—the architect was a grown woman—but it also alludes to the idea that being a girl is something that must be overcome.

To create an inclusive workplace culture respectful of women, there are two steps that we can all take.

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First, make a commitment to stop using diminishing terms to refer to women. If you are an organizational leader and this type of language is especially common in your workplace, let the entire staff know that they are expected to stop using pet names and diminutives for women, whether those women are customers, coworkers, subordinates, or managers.

Second, use bystander intervention. Recognize that women may experience backlash if they call out others who use sexist language. In addition, these terms can be so common that even well-intentioned people may continue to use them. And using diminishing terms isn’t a problem exclusive to men. Women may also have been socialized to refer to other women as “girls.” Or they may use a pet name like “honey” or “sweetie” with another woman to assert their own dominance. If you hear diminishing names being used, gently correct the individual on the spot or later in private.

One woman summed up perhaps the best advice: “You can call me by my name. Or better yet, just talk to me like a human and leave out all of the [pet] names.” Doing so sends a signal to women that they do indeed belong, fostering the culture of workplace equality that Justice Ginsburg fought for.


Amy Diehl, Ph.D. is associate vice president and chief information technology officer at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and an expert on gender bias in the workplace. Find her on Twitter @amydiehl.

Leanne Dzubinski, Ph.D. is associate dean of the Cook School of Intercultural Studies and associate professor of intercultural education and studies at Biola University, and a prominent researcher on women in leadership.