Don’t Call Me Girl, Please

Today a man put his hand on the small of my back to lead me into the office where our meeting was taking place.  Twice this happened.  The small of the back is such a personal spot.  A spot reserved for intimate relationships.  But, I’ve only met this man a handful of times.   My company was being audited for a voluntary program and this man was here acting as our consultant.  I suppose the gesture was meant to be reassuring.  It didn’t feel sexual in the slightest.  Still, I felt uncomfortable.

I didn’t address it because we were in the middle of a grueling meeting.  And I never want to appear hostile, especially knowing this man didn’t “mean anything” by it.  But then, I envision myself doing the same exact thing – softly laying my hand against the small of this man’s back to guide him into an office – and it just seems absurd.

It’s this brand of seemingly innocuous sexism against women that I struggle with the most.  It’s easy enough to know how to combat open discrimination.  At least you see it coming.  But how does one fight against ingrained belief systems and subtle sexism? Especially when it comes from people you know and like?

Take, for example, the man in my office who refers to the women here collectively as “the girls”.  It’s not meant to knock us down a few pegs.  It’s familiar and warm and informal.   Actually, it comes off almost fatherly.  It doesn’t sound like he takes us very seriously as coworkers, but I know that he does.  He’s the warmest person in the office- treats everyone like family.  More often than not the office feels like a battlefield and for better or worse, when this man comes around, his friendly attitude is a welcome relief.

There’s still that ever-present “but” though.  Just because someone doesn’t “mean anything” by a gesture doesn’t mean it’s not damaging.   It’s not helping our position in an already tough office for upper management to hear us being referred to as “the girls”.   It’s a problem that the consultant I hired found me to be someone who needed a reassuring hand on the back like a little girl.

It seems that this type of man has specific roles he needs to assign to the women he encounters.  And we respond by doing a crazy kind of dance trying to avoid being any one of those labels while still being true to ourselves and trying to get ahead in our lives.  We take responsibility and adjust our behaviors accordingly.  It’s hardly fair but for now it’s our best defense.

We can and have dismantled some institutional discrimination but that doesn’t change the underlying beliefs that created the system in the first place.  Women have been working this for decades and we’re still being treated as hostile when we speak up against misconceptions or stand up for ourselves.  We’ve learned to shadowbox against our families, our friends and our peers without undoing progress.  It’s a delicate balance.

What’s the solution?  We’ve already carved space for ourselves outside of our assigned boxes but the burden should not always fall on the woman to be the educator, the defender, the example.  It’s way past time to share the load.   It would take maybe ten seconds for the friendly man in my office to stop and think about a more appropriate word instead of “girls” to describe us.  We aren’t a giggling group of teenagers.  We work twice as hard as everyone else just to stay at status quo.

Is ten seconds really too much to ask?  Ten seconds of effort and I don’t have to worry about how to address gender equality while smiling and laughing to avoid alienating the one nice guy in my office and becoming the office nag.  Ten seconds of forethought and we can all avoid that awkward conversation about how I don’t want to be touched on my back or anywhere else for that matter.   Ten seconds and you can decide how you’d want your daughter to be treated and how you’d want her to feel about herself.  Ten seconds and you can see how your son treats the women around him.  Ten seconds would be a start.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation