• Humaira Ahmed

What's in a word? Trigger warning!

Ever since I began my work in gender diversity and equality in the workplace, I started to learn more about the labels, terms and words that have been around for a long time that reflect patriarchy in ways I hadn't imagined. After all, words are powerful. They mean a lot. In the text and email world we live in, they mean even more so now than ever. Words matter. Labels matter.

Over time, I realized certain words became a trigger for me. Even when the people using these words meant well, it hurt. My family thinks I can be very dramatic (read: sensitive) and they tell me to “get over it” as they are just words.

So, I thought I would share 3 labels (aka triggers) with you and let you pick a side ;-)  

1. Hey Guys!

Literally! The word "guys" is very frequently used to address a group of people (often both men and women) and that became a trigger for me. Why don't we use the word "gals" to address all people? Why not? Because we can’t even THINK of men as gals, but it is a-okay to address women as men?

I don’t think so!

I have learned that the alternatives (folks, people, everyone, you all) are all inclusive terms and mean pretty much the same thing unless you really mean “hey men!”

This meme sums up what it feels like when people refer to a group of only women as “guys”.

2. Girl!

Please! No!

The word girl is even more frequently used to address women who have reached adulthood. By definition, a girl means “a female child.” Umm, no! I am not a child and quite frankly, I find the word to be patronizing unless, of course, it is used in a friendly context amongst friends. But when strangers address me or other women as girls, I tell you…

Some classic examples are:

Hey Girl!

Girl Boss!

You go, girl!

You are rocking it, girl!

You get the idea.

From what I have observed, the word “boy” is used to describe a man who is acting like a child (think: mama’s boy) or used by women to refer to their family of all men which often includes their husbands (e.g. I love my boys!)

Maybe you are thinking by now, “settle down, Humaira” — and I promise, I will — when you start calling men who are strangers “boys”.


3. Mentor

Say what?! Maybe now you have begun to side with my family.

But let me share.

I was having coffee with a longtime friend of mine who also works in the tech industry in Victoria, BC last year, and we both shared our experiences with mentors and advisors. That's when we started to dissect the word mentor and immediately thought that perhaps mentor is derived from "men" who "tutor" — hence MENtor.

Since that day, I would find alternatives to the word mentor (champion, advisor, peer, advocate) as if it was a dirty word.

Upon research, I learned that mentor comes from the element “ment” which means mind, thinking, or reflection (as in the English word mental). So, a mentor is someone, who stimulates another to think; and a mentee is someone, who is helped to think.

Aha! I got mentorship all wrong!

Even though Google helped me learn the origin of the word mentor, I still am on a hunt for a word we can use in place of mentor. Up for a challenge?

Are there any words that are a trigger for you? Please share. Who knows — maybe we will end up with our own inclusive dictionary.

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