Please don’t call me a lady at work

When in business, I dislike the tag “lady” and people ask me why. Let me explain why I think it is inappropriate. When I think of the term “lady” I see someone dressed in a modest and feminine way, being demure and generally taking a second position. A lady is in my eyes is less likely to be the project leader, soccer player, truck driver, surgeon or barrister.

Now stop for a minute, close your eyes, and reflect on the vision that you have of a “lady”. Can you visualise a “lady” being a business leader, driving a train, being an electrician or any one of a number of roles that are historically seen as the domain of men? Are they a “lady”? Does it really fit?

Then think also about how you envisage a “gentleman”. I see an older man, very courteous, in a suit and often in a social setting. He treats me as a “lady”.

So when we say good evening “ladies and gentlemen” it is often in a social setting and is a way of addressing and audience to show respect. However, it doesn’t reflect business acumen, career aspiration, strong leadership or strong opinions.

In an organisational setting we refer to the “men” in the organisation and therefore we should use the term “women”. If we say a CEO is a gentleman does it suggest a strong inclusive leader — I think not. Similarly if we say a female CEO is a “lady”.

I have had men say I think it is respectful to call a businesswoman a “lady”. However, I find that that opinion is often a mask for someone who brings many biases into their treatment of women. They see women as agreeable, motherly and nice.

When a man speaks about the “ladies in my team” there is an undercurrent of meaning that the man is the superior person, protecting the ladies but not a message of women ready to take more senior positions and striving for new projects and opportunities.

I don’t think I have ever heard a man speak of the “gentlemen in my team”. That is because this would imply lack of leadership and ambition.

It may seem a very simple change but in my view it is a precursor to greater gender equality as it changes the subconscious assumptions made by the speaker and the listener.

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