There are approximately 177 students in second-year Law this year, 112 of whom (a whopping 63%) are women. I have not yet had the opportunity of acquainting myself with all of them, but most of the ones I have befriended seem insightful, capable, smart women, who one day I hope to see become judges, chief justices, members of parliament, prime ministers, or wherever they wish to proceed to.
They all have their unique story – they come from various backgrounds, different family environments, particular reasons why they joined the law course, and individual dreams for their future.
However, one thing unites them all. They are fully grown specimens of the female gender of the Homo sapiens species. They are most definitely not “girls”.
So I was quite shocked to attest to one of my law lecturers repeatedly point to female students while referring to them as “the girl in pink”, or “the girl behind the girl in the black shirt”, or “the girl at the back”.
Had he referred to the males as “the boy with the beard”, or “the boy in the blue t-shirt", I would have chalked it up to simple ignorance of the usage of the English language. However, the males were referred to as men, as in, “you, the man with the beard”, and so on. Which only leads me to make the conclusion that the infantilising labelling was only targeted at the females.
So why is this sexist, condescending, chauvinistic and patronising attitude towards women still so pervasive, even in our highest educational institutions? Even more scathing is that this happened in the law course, by a lawyer, who is expected to be training the minds of his students to think about concepts such as gender equality and human rights. And, more importantly, why do the women accept it?
As playwright Bonnie Greer aptly expressed, “a girl is someone who is not an adult, not a grown up... someone who does not take responsibility for herself”. And Dictionary.com defines “girl” as “a female child” or “a young, immature woman”. Referring to a woman as a girl on the workplace or in an educational institution diminishes her intellectual contributions and her maturity, ignoring her accomplishments and implies that she needs to be looked after and cannot be in control of her life.
Nobody refers to a man as a “boy” after high school, except perhaps his mother. Most definitely, at workplaces men are not referred to as “boys” during business meetings. Richard Branson is only referred to as a “boy” when he is indulging his childish balloon exploits.
Where gender inequality is still very much a reality, language matters as an expression of the way we see the world.
Some might say that this is being oversensitive. However, in a world where gender inequality is still very much a reality, language matters as an expression of the way we see the world.
Perhaps the men who refer to fully grown women as “girls” simply can’t handle women – adult, sexual, knowledgeable, self-respecting, feisty, independent women. They prefer instead someone who is not their equal. Someone they can control, dominate, and impress while prancing around quoting articles from our laws, while hiding their fear of women’s power behind childish and purposely demeaning euphemisms.
Since this happened in a law lecture, let me refer to Chapter 456 of the Laws of Malta – the Equality for Men and Women Act (note that it is not called the Equality for Men and Girls Act). Article 8(3) reads “It shall be the duty of educational establishments and entities providing vocational training, within the limits of their competence to ensure that curricula and textbooks do not propagate discrimination.”
Perhaps the scope of this article should be widened to encompass the delivery of lectures, to ensure that unbiased and non-discriminating language is used by the lecturers.
After all, some of them get particularly offended when naïve first years refer to them by anything less than “Dr” - and rightly so, because they worked hard to earn that designation. But please, earn that respect by reciprocating respect towards me. After all, if you take a look at my chest, the logo reads “Wonder Woman”, not “Wonder Girl”.