If You Have a Y-Chromosome

Respect for female co-workers begins by taking one small but important step forward. Because words matter and we have to start somewhere.

credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toni_Frissell

There’s no need to open with examples of mistreatment, disrespect and harassment of women in tech — it has become all too common.

One, single, small step: cease referring to your female colleagues as GIRLS.

Just stop. Today. Your female colleagues are “women.” Develop the respectful habit of referring to your female colleagues as women.

Nobody should ever refer to you as “a boy”

Words matter, and can be demeaning; we need to start here. As the poet Maya Angelou said, “Words are things,” and in this case they have the power to demean.

“Words are things… Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things.” — Maya Angelou

Watch. Listen.


If a co-worker refers to a colleague as a “girl,” politely correct him or her. This let’s your co-worker know that you believe words matter, just as they do for product descriptions, marketing, sales pitches, etc.

What if your colleagues referred to you as a “boy?”

This is what it would feel like.

“That new boy in the Dev team, he’s filling some big shoes.”
“Have you met the boy that just started in accounting?”
“For a boy with only a few years experience, you do good work!”
“Let’s ask a boy in the Finance department to help us out with that.”
“We should hire another boy in accounting, that team needs help.”

What would be your degree of comfort and respect in such an environment? Think about it.

Simply replace the inappropriate term “girl” with: ‘woman,’ ‘young woman,’ ‘employee,’ ‘colleague.’ These correspond perfectly, and respectfully, to: ‘man’, ‘young man,’ etc.

We have to start somewhere. If a female colleague to be referred to in the workplace as a “girl”, where do we draw the line? What other terms and expressions are acceptable in our workplaces?

Applying Data Science to this problem

To try and quantify this problem, we can collect stats from Google verbatim searches, across several languages. The results speak of cultural differences and point out the abnormality of using the term “girl” in the English language. It has become a pervasive wrong.

Verbatim searches use the precise terms in the search. We’ll use the number of search results and search images as an indicator of both prevalence and appropriateness. (While I speak and have studied Italian, French and German, I do not speak a word of Chinese or Hindi, however the related images are universal.)

Germany, with the worlds fourth largest GDP, does not generally use the term “girl at work” to refer to professional women, although years ago I did have a native German speaking colleague in one of my startups who (with a heavy German accent) would refer to female colleagues as “girls.” I confronted him about this. Asked him if he would be happy with his wife (also a professional) working in Germany to be referred to by colleagues as a “Mädchen” (pronounced ‘maid-chen’). At first he laughed, but then quickly realized that this was a verbal absurdity.

Similarly, there is no ambiguity in French or Italian about the term “girl.” The Chinese use (in search) is split, however the search yields images that are consistent: girls at work are actual children. The Hindi search results are too sparse to apply, however again the images are consistent.

A “girl at work” is a child and thus not a professional. The use of the term “girl” towards an adult colleague is therefore clearly inaccurate and demeaning.

The top organic search results for “girl at work,” below, speak for themselves: the workplace has been allowed to turn into a frat house.

The words themselves are culpable — as are those speaking them.

Of the image search, all but one of the English-language image results are of women rather than girls. (Can you spot the one that is
actually accurate?)

And here’s the Italian equivalent, the same expression, “girls at work,” yields very different images.

Don’t bother to research the Italian word “bambina,” it is the precise translation for “girl” (I speak the language natively). The word “ragazza” is correctly translated to “young woman” — fundamentally different.

Words are things. They get into you. They flow through your work environment. They establish a baseline for what is and is not appropriate.

So if you have a Y-chromosome (and even if not) take this one tiny habitual step today. Show respect for your female colleagues and cease referring to them as “girls.” They are women, they are adults, and they are professionals.

The next time we say “girl at work,” let’s make sure we’re referring to an actual child, e.g., a young daughter visiting a workplace to learn about a respectful professional setting.


And let’s hope that’s a place where the world will be changed for
the better, because of this simple, yet vital, word