The Feminist Continuum: Separating The Women From the Girls

You go girl!? Girl Power!?! This whole feminist spectrum is so complicated.

I believe in strong women. I’d like to think I am one. I support my sisters in their battle for true equality. I refuse to believe the Jens, Joannas, and Belles are any less capable of greatness than the Jons, Joes, and Bills, and I am a great cheerleader for this movement of female talent heading not toward, but to, the top. But maybe I am part of the problem? Or are some of the other “feminists” more words and less action?

I was chided by two of my co-workers this week when I referred to a few of the other people in our mentorship circle as “girls”. I watched them shudder, I think I saw their skin actually crawl. I got smacked verbally like a puppy who had just peed on the new carpet. Apparently, only “women” is the appropriate word to use. At first I was apologetic, I was put in my place. They were so offended by my use of the term.

But wait, I was feeling offended too, by the implication that I was disrespecting women. Was I really so way off base here? Is this even a productive conversation??

I think of myself as “a cool chick”, my friends, my peers are always “the girls”. Is there anything really wrong with this? I refer to groups of male co-workers and friends as “the guys”, as they would likely describe themselves at any age in social and professional environments. Isn’t this the same? It’s not meant to be demeaning- it’s colloquial, familiar, endearing. In fact, my usage of words like “men and women” are used almost exclusively for restroom directions or people I don’t know or people who are just really old.

Are the sensitivity levels too high here? If we are asked to walk on eggshells, isn’t it inevitable that they will be broken?

Women are in fact advancing, there is progress on the horizon. But at what cost? If I had a dollar for the amount of times male (or female for that matter) colleagues have noted the purposeful push to put women in senior positions, and/or the lack of a pool of “good women” for the jobs we so desperately want to give them, I wouldn’t be spending so much time in front of a computer, or handing out business cards at crowded conferences. The blatant candidness about this forced advancement actually cheapens the roles that qualified women are getting. Now, every time a woman gets a title that a man does not, people feel emboldened to chalk it up to her gender and not her merit. I have been a victim of this accusation in the past and it turns the taste of victory into a bitterness even Listerine can’t wash away.

In this current movement, there is a desperation to put women in senior roles so each employer can self-congratulate for being a champion of women. Levels of management are being added, co-heads of divisions now exist where only one person managed before. That’s like putting training wheels back on a bicycle! It’s not doing much to create a base of support from the men who are being cast aside for roles they are qualified for, or those who need to share their job with a woman just so there is a female name on an office door.

Some women are even being propelled into leadership roles without proper skill set building advancement paths, potentially setting them up for failure in this race to show progress. Is this really furthering women? Will it be evidence in a few years for the “guys” to say “We tried to promote women, but they just didn’t cut it.”?

While it may be a lower hurdle these days to get these senior roles, I’d venture to guess the bar is going to be high to stay in them. Just ask Erin Callan who was named CFO of Lehman Brothers right before their demise. Or Marissa Mayer who couldn’t turn around Yahoo long after they were doomed, or Sheryl Sandberg who is always being blamed for Facebook’s nefarious woes. There is some hope of a real revolution-Teresa Sullivan, the first woman to run the University of Virginia in its 200+ years, was pushed out for her soft spoken ways early on in her tenure, but the pushback was so strong she was actually reinstated and just completed a very successful 8 years in the powerful role.

I wonder if these really impressive, bold, personable women thought of themselves as such or, like me, just one of the girls? We are wasting too much time nitpicking the wrong things. Let’s spend less energy shaming one another for using controversial colloquial terms, and more in preparation for our well deserved propulsion to the top!

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