Who's the New Girl?

The unconscious bias of “girls” in the workplace


Mar 17, 2023

Here we are, halfway through 2023’s Women History Month. We have been speaking about DEI efforts at a range of companies and business forums, and we are are taking a step back to look at the conversation we started.

We have a thesis: 

Gender inequity wasn’t created from a few big things that happened, but rather from the everyday drip of many small, unconscious moments where bias comes through; where women are made to feel they don’t belong or aren’t welcome in the corporate workplace.  Any one of the little things alone would be too petty to mention, but over time these little bricks of micro-aggressions add up to build a wall, and women check out.

We have the facts: 

The business case is clear that companies with gender-diverse leadership financially outperform non-diverse companies. Yet, despite modest gains in representation over the last eight years, women—and especially women of color—are still dramatically underrepresented in corporate America, and in leadership (25%) and boardrooms (28%). For every step of progress, there are surprising setbacks (seriously, he thinks SVB was “distracted by diversity demands”?!?). And women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate in years.

We are hearing it directly. More and more women reaching out to us saying “I’m so frustrated,” “I’m so tired of the bull*&#T.” These are women that did everything they needed to do to reach the executive levels at their organizations, and now they look around and say “is this what success should feel like?”

So, what’s a girl to do? 🤔🙄

Pet peeve alert! We have just triggered a debate.

Who's the New Girl?

Chapter 1: “Who’s the New Girl” (from You Should Smile More)

Is it a big deal to call a woman “girl” in the workplace? “Who’s the new girl in accounting?” Isn’t it friendly and casual language? If it’s unconscious and well meaning, are we looking for bias where we shouldn’t be, and overthinking a nuance of diversity that we should just let go?Are we overthinking a nuance of diversity that we should just let go?


Well, the research says otherwise. In fact, women leaders are twice as likely as men leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior. (Source: McKinsey)

Even with good intent, the label “girl” helps perpetuate a low standard of behavior. By definition, a girl is a child and a woman is an adult. So, when women are called girls, the connotation is that they are inferior in stature, less worthy of recognition and promotion due to a lack of competence and maturity.

An experiment in which women were referred to as “girls” found that the subjects of this term felt generally less confident in their own abilities and in the way others would perceive them. The message is clear: many women feel invalidated when they are called “girls.” 

The former supermodel Paulina Poritzkova explains that in the modeling industry, “all models were and still are called girls. Regardless of age. Why are there no women in modeling? Because a girl doesn’t know to say no. A girl doesn’t know her own power. A girl doesn’t know her value. Because she wants people to like her, she puts up with things she never should have.”

Think about it: a professional would never refer to a male employee or colleague as “that boy” – you would never say “who’s the new boy in accounting?” The language subtly signifies the esteem with which members of the company are regarded. And if one sees a colleague as “the girl”, they likely won’t think of her as the next CEO.

We are only beginning to understand the ways thoughtful word choice can help women employees feel more happy and fulfilled at work. Research suggests a reduction of gendered language in general may be the reason some countries retain higher numbers of women in the workforce than others. By putting in the effort to address them with respect, we can all do our part to make the women around us feel valued.

We believe this is where the conversation starts.

Wendy Davidson, President, CEO and Board Director

Ending gender bias in the workplace can begin with this small act: let’s agree that there are no “girls” in the workplace.

This is why we started the #awomannotagirl campaign this month: asking women on LinkedIn to post pictures of themselves as girls, using the hashtag and commenting “you could call me a girl back then but not anymore.” And we asked men to show their #allyship. The response has been remarkable.

Remarkable because so many people jumped in! Because it’s such an easy place to start. And because not only women agreed but men were more than willing allies – a little awareness goes a long way. We have proof again that micro-aggressions can be solved with micro actions – this small step can start to build bridges instead of brick walls.

Dolly Chugh's post on LinkedIn

Dolly Chugh, PhD, Professor, and Best-selling author

#awomannotagirl on LinkedIn

Cie Nicholson, Investor, Advisor and Board Director