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Author Topic: adult female students being called "girls"  (Read 49312 times)
ucprof
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« on: January 31, 2012, 1:53:44 AM »

I rarely hear this at my own institution.  We commonly use the term women and men or females and males.
But there are enough people out there who still seem to want to refer to adult females (especially younger ones) as girls.  I will correct my own students and postdocs if they use this term and they typically stop after one correction.  I am reading letters of recommendation for PhD students and there is a colleague from another institution who is writing letters for a number of high level applicants.  There is a woman who is repeatedly referred to as a "girl" in the letter of rec.  I do not get the impression she is a minor but rather that the letter writer likely commonly uses this term when referring to younger females.   None of the letters about male applicants refer to them as "boys".  It bothers me and I want to say something to the letter writer.  I know him well enough I feel I could say something.  But he is no at my school and might not be pleased to get an email from me about this issue.  Still I feel that if I could change his wording in future letters it would be better for the women he is writing about.   Advice?  Also is there a thread about this topic somewhere?
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hegemony
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« Reply #1 on: January 31, 2012, 2:33:07 AM »

I would leave it alone.  However worthy the cause, people don't like being told what to do.  The letter-writer is as likely to entrench as a deliberate reaction to your criticism as to change his habits.  I think the use of the term reflects poorly on him rather than disadvantaging any of the women he's writing about.
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hennypenny
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« Reply #2 on: January 31, 2012, 3:10:17 PM »

I think the big question is how well do you know this person?  If well enough to say it jokingly, then next time you see him (not by email--too easily misconstrued) then by all means go for it.

Thread-jack: did anyone hear the NPR story a couple of weeks ago on the place (municipality? department? whatever) in France where they no longer permit "Mademoiselle" in official correspondence or discourse?  All women are to be "Madame" Though the official who was interviewed didn't really clarify the case of female children.  He said something along the lines of, of course no one will call a child Madame, but gave no indication of where the child/adult line was.

Back to the OP's question.  I agree w/ Hegemony.  This reflects mainly on him, not the person described.  It is kind of strange to keep calling someone anything gender-specific, actually.  Why not person, student, scholar...

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larryc
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« Reply #3 on: January 31, 2012, 4:26:18 PM »

It is sexist as hell. If you knew the person I would pick up the phone. "Hey John, I was reading your LOR for Susan Smith and I am wondering--is she a minor? Oh, well the reason I thought that is that you refer to her as a girl. So you are telling me she is not a girl, she is a woman?"

Heck, you could do it anyway if you are feeling your oats. Probably though it would do no good and you are better to let it go.
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systeme_d_
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« Reply #4 on: January 31, 2012, 4:27:20 PM »

I'd call the man on it.  But I'd do it in person, like at the next conference or something. 
« Last Edit: January 31, 2012, 4:28:01 PM by systeme_d_ » Logged

quantmeister
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« Reply #5 on: January 31, 2012, 5:17:53 PM »

I would never refer to a semi-grown (say, somewhere past the early teens) individual of the female pursuasion as a "girl," just as I would never refer to one of the male pursuasion as a "boy." I might refer to her as a "young lady" -- e.g., "the young lady in question" -- and him as a "young man." I do, casually, refer to groups of grown-ups as "gals" or "guys" -- e.g., "the gals are up to so-and-so" or "the guys seem to think" -- but never in reference to an individual. Am I being sexist?
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bcohlan1
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« Reply #6 on: January 31, 2012, 6:00:40 PM »

Where I grew up people use "girls" in the plural to refer to any group of women, even if they are in their 90's. It seems to function as the all-feminine version of "guys". But even there using it in the singular to refer to an adult woman is weird.
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voxprincipalis
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« Reply #7 on: January 31, 2012, 6:01:27 PM »

I think it's clearly wrong in a formal setting, but I go back and forth about it in an informal, conversational setting. I think this is because in other social contexts the word "girls" is sometimes used to refer to women who are clearly above the age of majority (e.g. "girls' night out," "girly clothes," etc.). It has a sort of affectionate-diminutive kind of connotation in those instances, I think. And "girls' night out" and "ladies' night" are not at all the same thing.

(Similarly, an "old boys' club" is not the same thing as an "old men's club.")

Sometimes it grates on me and sometimes it doesn't bother me at all. But in a formal letter, I absolutely agree that the word "girl" ought not be present.

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chromatic
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« Reply #8 on: February 02, 2012, 1:57:56 PM »

It's in a letter of recommendation, so you have to tell your colleague that it is not good. Referring to an applicant as a 'girl' in such a letter might damage her chances of getting a job.
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hegemony
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« Reply #9 on: February 02, 2012, 2:24:04 PM »

Really?  It would damage her chances?  If you read a letter of recommendation that said "Of all the girls I've advised, Stella Jones is the best researcher," would you really conclude, "This recommender has referred to this student as a 'girl,' and therefore she must be unworthy of this job!  Forget the promising writing sample and the impressive CV!  Out with her application!"  Wouldn't you just roll your eyes and move on? 

I don't think the recommender is damaging the student's credibility; I think he's damaging his own credibility.
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ejb_123
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« Reply #10 on: February 02, 2012, 4:48:12 PM »

Really?  It would damage her chances?  If you read a letter of recommendation that said "Of all the girls I've advised, Stella Jones is the best researcher," would you really conclude, "This recommender has referred to this student as a 'girl,' and therefore she must be unworthy of this job!  Forget the promising writing sample and the impressive CV!  Out with her application!"  Wouldn't you just roll your eyes and move on?  

I don't think the recommender is damaging the student's credibility; I think he's damaging his own credibility.

If the reference is unprofessional and lacks credibility, couldn't that negatively affect the professionalism and credibility of the person the reference is recommending?
« Last Edit: February 02, 2012, 4:48:48 PM by ejb_123 » Logged
helpful
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« Reply #11 on: February 02, 2012, 5:18:50 PM »

I also hear women tennis players and golfers refer to each other as "girl" or "girls". My father did the same all the time; I tried to correct him several times, but it never resulted in any changes, so I just cringed when he said it.

I would approach your colleague at a conference or anywhere you see him in person. Emailing him the correction is just cold and wouldn't do any good.
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dr_prephd
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« Reply #12 on: February 02, 2012, 5:21:13 PM »

I think it's generally inappropriate in a professional setting; however, perhaps the letter-writer is giving not-so-subtle hints about the maturity of the advisee.
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systeme_d_
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« Reply #13 on: February 02, 2012, 10:33:49 PM »

I think it's generally inappropriate in a professional setting; however, perhaps the letter-writer is giving not-so-subtle hints about the maturity of the advisee.

See, that's how I'd broach the topic.  I'd ask the advisor whether he was trying to hint that the student was very immature.  When he protested that he wasn't, I'd make it damn clear that it sure seemed like he was, given the strange choice of descriptor.
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collegekidsmom
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« Reply #14 on: February 02, 2012, 10:47:01 PM »

Too bad there's not another word. I felt really strange when I was a teenager and people started referring to me as a woman. I thought that seemed like a word for someone like my mother, not me or my female friends. Female would've been OK, but at the time I cringed at "woman." Still, it would be professional to not use "girls" in any kind of LOR.
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