6 words you should never say to women

It would be great if the only challenges women had to face in the workplace entailed tight deadlines and strategic hurdles. 

Unfortunately, this is still not the case. 42 percent of women have faced gender discrimination at work, women earn around 20% less than men, and 23% of women are considered incompetent due to their gender, according to research from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Pew Research Center. 

And those gender biases are reinforced daily through the use of language, whether it’s done intentionally or not. Subjective language can prop up sexist systems, according to a HuffPost article where women shared their experiences being held back at work for being perceived as “too direct” or “challenging to manage.” The problem is, women get called those things for behaviors that men get rewarded for. 

Even seemingly innocent remarks can be harmful. To combat the negative effects of stereotypes, it’s important to be aware of words you should never say to a woman, especially not in a professional setting, not only because they are cringeworthy, but also because they can hurt someone’s career. Here are six words to reconsider.

Bossy 

You know by now that calling a woman bossy has sexist connotations. But have you heard of the double-bind dilemma for women in positions of leadership? Because of unconscious gender stereotypes, women are put in an impossible situation at work. 

Qualities such as being assertive, strong, and decisive are viewed as positive attributes in male leaders. But that same take-charge energy makes a woman respected yet disliked. On the other hand, women are expected to be nurturing and caring. In leadership roles, those traits will make a woman liked — but not viewed as competent. There is no winning.

So when you call a woman bossy, you are buying into the idea that it’s unlikeable for her to exhibit traits you would admire in a man. 

Sweetie 

Being called sweetie is patronizing. “These pet names are essentially a socially acceptable way of saying ‘Aw, look at you, you cute little female thing,’ wrote Nile Capello in a Bustle article. “Though not necessarily sexualizing, calling someone ‘sweetheart’ is still objectifying in the sense that it asserts that women are there to be projected upon.

Calling us ‘sweetheart’ still conveys the message that it doesn’t matter who we are, what we do, or what we want — it matters what we look like. It matters what these men see in us (in this case, someone young and cute), instead of what we see in ourselves.”

Smile 

There is nothing wrong with smiling. Smiling is a wonderful thing. But when you tell a woman to smile, you are playing into the idea that women owe you something. That you expect their good mood, pleasant demeanor and positive energy. Women are humans. They have good and bad days. They smile when they want to smile. Sometimes, they’re serious. But in any case, you are not entitled to their smiles and should not tell a woman to smile even if you mean well. 

Girls 

When you call a woman a girl, you are essentially undermining her credibility. “It is seldom that we hear a man referred to as a ‘boy,’ but women of all ages continue to be called ‘girls’ by many people in workplace settings,” shared Susan Madsen, Women’s Leadership Scholar & Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Huntsman School of Business, in a Forbes article on why calling women girls is a bigger deal than you think. 

Simply put, it’s an infantilizing word to use when addressing your grown, adult coworkers. “When women are called girls, the subtle message is that they are not mature, professional or responsible,” adds Madsen. 

Aggressive 

Calling a woman aggressive is, again, based on expectations that women should be “softer.” The same behaviors that earn a woman that label at work, are the behaviors that male leaders get praised and promoted for. Furthermore, black women are even more negatively impacted by this stereotype and word. 

“Black women must overcome the angry black woman stereotype, which characterizes black women as bad-tempered, hostile and overly aggressive,” wrote Diversity, Equity & Inclusion strategist Janice Gassam Asare in a Forbes piece

Think twice before calling any woman aggressive, as that word is steeped in harmful stereotypes that uphold the glass ceiling that prevents them from moving forward in their careers. 

Sensitive 

At best, calling a woman sensitive implies women are too emotional, a destructive idea when building credibility in the workplace and having sound judgment and decision-making. At worst, calling a woman sensitive is a form of gaslighting and invalidating her experience. 

“It’s an attempt to at once dismiss your feelings while also turning the tables and making you at blame, guilty for myriad things: for finding fault with another’s actions, for having thin skin, but most importantly, for bothering the offender with your feelings,” shared Helena Bala in a Repeller blog post about being called too sensitive.