Leah M. Stiegler

Leah M. Stiegler
Associate

Victor O. Cardwell

Victor O. Cardwell
Principal and Chairman

We’ve just celebrated International Woman’s Day, not International Girl’s Day – and it begs the question, why are so many hard-working women referred to as “girls” at work?

In honor of International Women’s Day (Sunday, March 8) I decided to write this article about being called a “girl” in the workplace. This article is not about gender identity–it is about a common occurrence of adult women being referred to as “girls” at work.

The reference is made by men and women alike and is becoming a more frequent allegation in sex discrimination litigation. Even disregarding the obvious legal implications, the reference carries a demeaning and negative tag that creates yet another roadblock for women to achieve positions of leadership within their workforce.

Here are just a handful of examples I’ve observed over the last few months:

  • Referring to a Marketing Director as the company’s “Event Planner Girl”
  • Referring to the women’s restroom as “the little girl’s room”
  • Referring to a group of women in the office as “Mean Girls”

You may think these examples are not so egregious and this is just a petty complaint. In fact, you may be right from a legal standpoint. To meet the legal standard for a hostile work environment claim based on sex, the conduct not only has to be about sex or gender but has to be both objectively and subjectively offensive as well as severe and pervasive. We are not suggesting these singular events rise to a legally-actionable level. However, a prudent employer will work hard every day to minimize these “micro-inequities” that creep into a workplace and change the tone and tenor for so many hard-working professional women.

Now you may be thinking that being referred to as a “girl” is just not offensive to you. Any of us can engage in this conduct even when we have the best intentions. As the coach of a youth girls’ basketball team called “The Bosses,” I have a plaque on my desk from my team that says, “Girl Boss.” The other day I caught myself giving one of our legal assistants a high-five while saying, “girl power!” Clearly I would have a hard time arguing that it is objectively offensive. However, there are circumstances where it is subjectively offensive, and it is becoming increasingly offensive to others.

It may also be hard for a claimant to argue being referred to as a “girl” here and there is so severe and pervasive that she could state a claim for a hostile work environment. However, add those references to some of the other events that we see in workplaces every day, along with the right allegations, and you could find yourself defending conduct that may or may not be actionable—but is certainly embarrassing! This is even true if no men in the office are called “boys” – though the discrepancy alone could be enough to make this unequal conduct in the workplace an issue. As an aside, the use of the term “boy” to certain men can be equally problematic!

Regardless of whether it is legally actionable, a real concern is the consequence of unnecessarily hindering a woman’s career. Imagine a senior executive management team discussing a woman who has applied for a promotion to CFO and referring to her as “the accounting girl.” Intentional or not, it sends an implicit message that she is not an adult or up to the standards for the position. Even if the speaker doesn’t believe it, others in the room may subconsciously think of her as unable to handle stereotypical “adult” things like disciplining a subordinate, pitching a request to a big-time donor, or handling the company’s IRS litigation. If other candidates, i.e., men, are not tagged with this youth-like or immature characterization, you can guess who will be chosen as CFO.

While on its face this may not seem like a big deal, a proactive employer will certainly address this type of tagging in the workplace because the negatives outweigh the positives. More so, it is easily addressed. Simple education on the negative impact that could result should be all that is needed. If education fails and the references continue, disciplinary action may be appropriate as a violation of the company’s EEO or harassment policy, since frequent references could constitute offensive comments based on one’s sex.

Good training can cure a lot of today’s ills that sneak into the workplace! The Labor & Employment team is happy to help with training and policy questions any time you need us.