“girl” power

I just watched a short video called How to Get More Women in Tech in Under a Minute. The speaker, Caroline Drucker, is making a point about the toxicity of the word “girl” and how it hurts the cause of women in technology. Her argument is that every time we refer to ourselves as girls, or allow others to, we lose ground in our profession. I’ve got two problems with this. First, it wildly oversimplifies a super complex issue. Second, it’s in opposition to the goal of including more women.

I admit it sounds good on the surface, and it would be wonderful if all we had to do to close the gender gap (she’s not literally saying that) was to stop calling ourselves girls. You could say I’m predisposed to disagree, having started an organization that uses the word “girl” in its name and organizing the Austin chapter of a second. And I do disagree, but not just cause I don’t want to think of myself as the kind of woman who undermines the power of women collectively. Nope. The word “girl” in Austin All-Girl Hack Night is there quite intentionally.

I know women who are driven just as crazy by the use of the word “girl” as the presenter and the other women she references, and they have every right to feel that way. But I’d like to speak for the other side, as someone who frequently refers to herself and other women as girls, and is much less likely to refer to “men” than to “boys”, “dudes”, or “guys”. As a feminist walking what I perceive to be a damned thin line between making my point and making people uncomfortable, I choose casual language over formal pretty much every time.

Ms. Drucker touches on something I think is worth expanding on, which is the difference between us when we’re being women and when we’re being girls. And I think she implies that all of us – as adult women – are sometimes both. We never stop being grown-ass women, that is, but that doesn’t prevent us from acting like girls. Exactly like our male counterparts when they’re being boys, we’re fallible, we’re vulnerable, we’re sometimes immature and entirely too human. We might wish it would, but this doesn’t stop we we cross the threshold into our offices. Like it or not, sometimes we’re girls at work, too. Being a girl sometimes is part of being a woman.

But, fine, certainly male professional associations wouldn’t highlight those weaknesses. I have a question for women in tech organizations, though: where has all that careful naming gotten us? Have the organizations, conferences, articles, and movements that use the word “women” instead of “girls” or “chicks/chix” been markedly more successful? Anecdotally, it seems like no. At minimum, the two distinctions succeed in different ways.

Cause here’s another thing about women: for a long time, women weren’t supposed to hang out with men. Girls, by contrast, have in almost all cultures been lumped together with boys. Girls and boys are temporarily sexless, they’re treated more similarly than they probably will be for the rest of their lives. One good thing about the words “girl” and “boy” is that each implies its complement. When it comes to organizations that exist to integrate women with their male peers, I’d argue that “girl” is exactly the right word.

So those are the logical reasons I reject Ms. Drucker’s argument. The subjective reason, and what I was alluding to when I said I think her argument has the potential to hurt rather than help, is this: women are not all the same. Even feminists are not all the same, nor are people who choose technical professions. You can’t tell other people what to call themselves. There’s a long debate over whether you can change the power of a word like “bitch” by reclaiming it and using it in a way that’s casual and not derogatory. If we can’t settle that, we can’t tell other women which neutral, relatively unweighted word they get to label themselves with. Not all of us feel comfortable as women. Some feel more comfortable as girls. While “girl” may be a diminutive, a girl is also someone who climbs over fences and shaves half her hair off before someone catches her and draws on the walls.

I’m very much against the idea that women need to behave more like men in order to succeed, but there’s one thing men definitely get right: they respect each others’ independence. As women, we seem to be raised to do the opposite. There is no Catcher in the Rye for us, no On the Road. To me, telling women they’re fucking something up if they don’t call themselves women is like telling them they’re shitty moms if their kids go to school in hand-me-down clothes. The western tradition of passing mores down matrilineally and holding women to a standard we’d never expect of men seems to me to be making an appearance here, and that’s not constructive. You don’t tell other women who to be. You support whoever they choose to be. That’s how we get more women. If you don’t believe me, consider the “geek room” study, and how our industry’s been affected by the stereotype of the nerd. We already have women ignoring their technical calling because they feel they don’t like D&D enough. Let’s not make the ones who get past that barrier feel bad for being insufficiently earnest feminists.

In closing, I want to explain my personal use of the word “girl” in Austin All-Girl Hack Night. There’s a Salt-N-Pepa song – Expression – that contains these lyrics:

Yes, I’m blessed, and I know who I am
I express myself on every jam
I’m not a man, but I’m in command
Hot damn, I got an all-girl band

That’s why Austin All-Girl Hack Night is called what it is. Cause I listened to a lot of Salt-N-Pepa as a teenager and that’s where my picture of feminism comes from. It doesn’t mean every woman who comes to hack night has to agree, but it is in some way meant to suggest a more casual relationship with feminism and professionalism and a stronger emphasis on community and camaraderie. And, yes, even immaturity. It’s hard work being a grown-ass woman all the time. Sometimes it’s nice to get a bunch of girls together and draw on the walls. Maybe we get more women in tech by telling them they’re allowed to be girls sometimes and don’t have to be perfect women.

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6 Responses to ““girl” power”

  1. Sharon Says:

    i think you named the group perfectly. “All Women Hack Night” sounds like a boring affair. But when people ask me what the All-Girl Hack Night is like, I tell them it’s like a regular hack night, but with cupcakes and wine.

  2. Erik Says:

    I think calling someone a “woman” or “girl” doesn’t negate from the empowerment. I think that the best way to empower women in the tech industry is to involve more women in general. This goes back to the fact that there is power in numbers. I want more women to be given the chance to BE developers to BE programmers etc.. because it’s that change in perception that’s needed. “Girls” can do anything “boys” can do!

    So, I think rather than getting mixed up in the formalities it’s better to involve everyone. The women, girls, chicks, dudetts, you name it!

  3. Ben Says:

    I had similar thoughts when I saw the original video. “Women” is way too formal for a sub-culture that is purposefully casual. I can’t imagine going to a “men’s meeting”. But a “guy thing”? Sure.

    One problem is that there is no female equivalent of “guy”. We have “boy” and “man” which are analogous to “girl” and “woman”, but there’s no commonly used informal name for a group of women. I can see why some women find “girl’ diminutive, but I don’t think the answer is to start telling people what they’re allowed to call themselves.

  4. Holly Says:

    I am a female developer for Loyola University Medical, and I am the only female developer in there. I also do quite a bit of traveling doing consulting work for some of my ecommerce clients. Most of the times, I find myself working among all men. Geez, I wish there are more women in IT world!

  5. Kriti Says:

    Let’s not make the ones who get past that barrier feel bad for being insufficiently earnest feminists.

    Thanks for writing that. I tend to stay far away from other women/girls/whatever in technology because that’s exactly how I feel. I just want to code, I don’t really want to be a Woman in Technology.

  6. Chloe Agg Says:

    Very interesting article, thanks for writing!

    I’m a female engineer, and I hate being referred to as a girl. BUT only when the men in the context aren’t being referred to as boys. I’m happy to have girls nights & go to Girl Geeks Dinners, but whilst I’m there I’m likely to refer to my husband, father, and male colleagues as ‘the boys’. Using terminology like ‘girls’ certainly implies a lot more fun than ‘women’, which I’m definitely up for!
    All I want is fairness, no formality needed. For me that means calling the females ‘women’ if you’re referring to the males as ‘men’, and calling the males ‘boys’ if you’re referring to the women as ‘girls’. I don’t like being spoken to in the diminutive when my peers are being spoken to as adults. It shouldn’t be difficult, there are so many terms available that don’t offend:
    Lads & Lasses
    Guys & Gals
    Men & Women
    Girls & Boys
    Ladies & Gents
    Birds & Blokes
    Chaps & Chapesses etc